Foreign Language Requirement

How it Helps

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The Spectrum


Out of all the courses undergraduate students must take to receive a SUNY diploma, perhaps the most disliked and the most complained about is the foreign language requirement.

"Why do I need to take (Spanish/French/Italian/Chinese) to graduate when I want to be a(n) (economist/reporter/politician)?" students have asked for years. UB can do nothing to assuage the dissatisfied students, because the requirement comes from the top of the SUNY system, the board of trustees.

That, however, is not a bad thing. Far from it, in fact. If there were no language requirement in place, most students would not choose to take a language. It's the American way; what do we need with a language other than English? After all, most tourist locations cater to the American population with translators, English guidebooks, or even picture-heavy instructions.

Why, then? Because the foreign language requirement is an essential part of a complete and well-rounded education - even minimal experience with another language is beneficial. A good language course will teach the students almost as much about the usage of English as it will about the second language; Latin, for example, shows students how restrictive sentence structure is in English, compared to the almost anything-goes structure in Latin.

In total, students at UB who have to fulfill the requirement must spend two semesters - 10 credits altogether - doing so. It sounds like a lot, but considering that the minimum number of credits required to graduate from UB is 120, asking students to dedicate less than 10 percent of their time to languages isn't unreasonable. Because matriculated students don't pay for classes on a per-credit hour basis, the added classes don't cost students anything more than the textbooks necessary to learn the language.

It's not only the foreign language students learn. By studying the do's and do-not's of a different language, native English speakers can gain a greater understanding of the ways their mother tongue works. As an editor at The Spectrum, I've seen first-hand how widely the grasp of the English language varies, even after students take their required English courses, and any class that will help English speakers understand their language is a good class. As students who will one day take over the roles our parents fill now, it's important that we understand just how vital a role language plays in the world today, whether that language is English, Mandarin Chinese or Bulgarian.

The educational system of the United States is worlds behind other countries, where English is mandatory and taught to students from a very young age. In Switzerland, for example, the students learn German, English and French, and it's nothing to them. Our system introduces languages late into the learning window, both making acquisition more difficult and lessening students' interest in becoming bilingual. In this case, though, it's truly a case of better late than never; laziness is not an excuse for ignorance.

A common complaint about the foreign language requirement is that two or four semesters isn't enough to become fluent in a language, and it's true enough. A year, two years, that's not enough to speak like a native speaker - but it's enough to get an understanding of the basics and enough to be able to communicate, if the student puts enough work and effort into the course. The introductory courses - especially those in the more commonly selected languages - aren't meant to break students and make them sorry to have chosen that language. They're meant to provide the student with a very basic understanding of grammar and a small but applicable vocabulary and, hopefully, to hook the student's interest and make him or her want to learn more.

Why would students want to spend a year of their college career learning something they think they'll never use? Perhaps because English is not the only, or the best, language in the world. While it's one of the most spoken languages across the globe, there are still large parts of the world that don't speak English. In the United States, Spanish is fast becoming a language to be reckoned with, and a variety of other languages are growing in usage and popularity. Spanish isn't necessary to live in the United States, but for students planning to enter a career field that deals with customer relations, communications, management or health care, knowledge of a language other than English can only help. Whether use of the language is a job requirement, if it comes down to a choice between two job applicants with similar experience and education, familiarity with a second language can be the line on the resume that tips the scales.

It's an annoyance on the DARS report. It takes up time that could be dedicated to sleeping, true. But it also helps students to realize that Americans are not the only people in the world, and as we've seen in recent times, that knowledge can be bought dearly. Making a language requirement part of the requirements to graduate doesn't hurt anyone, and you might be surprised how it will help in 10 or 20 years.