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Learn Spain, not Spanish

In light of the upcoming revisions to the Duke Trinity curriculum, today we visit the unpopular foreign language requirement. The Trinity College of Arts & Science website argues that the foreign language requirement fulfills three goals: personal growth, global understanding and professional growth. We believe that the requirement should indeed fulfill those goals but that it fails to in its current state. In today’s editorial, we propose a more nuanced alternative to it that better fits student needs and manages to meet each of Trinity’s goals.

First, we address the goal of personal growth. Studies have long shown that bilingualism may improve certain functions of the brain; Trinity’s webpage cites these as evidence for how the current language requirement fuels personal growth. However, the vast majority of students at Duke do not actually become bilingual. After fulfilling their curricular requirement, they quickly abandon language learning. Their previous foreign language skills rust and are eventually forgotten altogether. As such, we find it unlikely that Duke’s current three-semester foreign language requirement is likely to be helpful in that way. The Trinity webpage also states that foreign languages may cause a reexamination in personal identity, yet classes at Duke spend precious little time discussing “identity.” Fortunately, there is a way to reform the language requirement so that it really does help students achieve some personal growth.

A better curriculum would replace the current language requirement with a new “cultural competency” requirement. It would require students to take three semesters of classes focused on a foreign region or culture. At least one of them would need to be a pure language class associated with the region, but the rest would be more open. Maintaining a one-semester language requirement would allow students to reap the benefits of experiencing a new type of learning (fulfilling the tenet of personal growth), but would not force them to adhere to a rigid and unhelpful three semester course regimen. While those intrinsically motivated to take three language courses could absolutely do so, not everyone would need to do so.

The new requirement would also do a better job of fulfilling the “global understanding” tenet. Those who opted to take only one language class would be able to take courses on foreign culture, taught in English. Such courses would put regions and cultures in a global context and allow students to truly begin to understand the broader importance (both geographically and academically) of their studies. Currently, these classes already exist in departments like International Comparative Studies and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Allowing students to use them to fulfill a new cultural competency requirement would be logical and wise.

In addition to increasing global understanding, the new requirement would also help “professional growth”—Trinity’s last foreign language requirement tenet. It takes more than being able to order off a menu in Spain to interact with another culture; in-depth classes taught in English would allow students to move beyond vocab memorization. It would be far more impressive for a student to be able to travel to France and talk in English about Gauguin’s contributions to post-impressionism than to know 40 French verb conjugations in the preterit tense. If students will not achieve language fluency at Duke, they ought to refocus on becoming culturally competent world citizens

With increasing globalization and Duke’s own growing global presence, it is even more critical that we replace our current foreign language requirement—seen as a burden—with a cultural competency requirement—a broader opportunity. By taking a diverse set of three classes, students would be well fit to communicate across cultures, understand the world they live in and pursue global interests.

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