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Response to ‘Learn Spain, not Spanish’

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The Chronicle’s Editorial Board recently addressed the Trinity Language Requirement in a piece titled “Learn Spain, not Spanish.” To move quickly past the absurd presumption that one can even come close to “learning Spain” without learning Spanish, the primary and national language of that country, I’ll focus on the main points that this editorial makes.

First, they endeavor to refute the claim that the language requirement fosters personal growth, citing the idea that most students do not make it to bilingualism and therefore don’t receive any of the neurological benefits that linguists and educators tout. I’d like to challenge the implicit definition of bilingualism used here, which the author seems to think is “fluency” (a problematic term in its own right) in both languages. I would argue that if you can even use another language to some extent (beyond simply possessing a hodgepodge of vocabulary that you can’t formulate into thoughts), then you are bilingual (or multilingual, depending on your repertoire), and you have received neurological benefit. If you’re curious, Dr. Edna Andrews, at Duke, does research on language acquisition (not just achieved fluency).

And I think that the other point they make, that foreign language study doesn’t cause a reexamination of identity because classes, especially in the introductory and intermediate levels where most Duke students fulfill their language requirements, don’t spend much time discussing identity, shows a lack of understanding regarding that identity reexamination. For me, the identity reexamination that comes with learning a foreign language is directly tied to the concepts of failure and humility. When you start learning a new language, it is hard and can be incredibly frustrating for well-educated individuals. They possess complicated thoughts that all of a sudden they can no longer express, struggling instead to say “The dog ran fast” at the beginning of their study of the language. The identity reexamination is not guided, as such, but prompted at an individual level. The ideal is that individuals realize that their perceived ability is directly tied to their language, even though their intelligence may not be. Hopefully this prompts them to question the perceived abilities of other people, asking if they stem from intelligence or language. And maybe they’ll even begin to understand that there are levels of competency regarding “native languages”, as well, and that just because two individuals may both claim English as their “native language,” it does not mean they can understand and communicate at the same level in that language.

The paragraph they dedicate to “global understanding,” arguing that cultural competency courses would serve this purpose better than language courses, also misses the point. To cite a popular example, I want to make reference to the popular saying that the Inuit language has around 50 different words for snow. Learning another language doesn’t lead to “global understanding” necessarily because the student advances to the level at which they are able to pursue cultural studies in that language, but because they learn the vocabulary and grammatical constructions used in the language, structures that define the way speakers of that language view and interact with the world. You can learn what a culture values by looking at the words that it uses (as per the above example) and you can learn how people think by looking at their grammatical structures. Consider, for example, the incredibly different formats of writing in Spanish and writing in English.

They address the third point of “professional growth” in a manner not dissimilar to the previous two, stating that being able to converse “in English about Gauguin’s contributions to post-impressionism” is more significant in terms of cultural interaction than “being able to order off a menu in Spain” or knowing “40 French verb conjugations” in one of the past tenses (considering that there is no “preterit” in French). Consider a scenario, for a moment. You are sitting in a meeting with a prospective business partner, at a local restaurant in a smaller town in France, hoping to convince them to join your business venture. The waiter arrives and you try to tell them, in English, what you want, while they look at you blankly and your companion begins to flush. Finally, you either ask your companion to translate for you, or, frustrated, you simply point at an item on the menu and leave it at that. Confident in your abilities, you turn to regale your companion with your knowledge of Gauguin after having humiliated them in a local establishment, thus unequivocally indicating that you only care about what YOU think is important in terms of French culture and that you are unwilling to invest any serious effort into anything else. Seeing your unwillingness to invest in them and their culture, your companion suffers through the meal with you and later offers the inexplicable response that they will not be joining your business venture, for some reason unwilling to invest their effort in you. Long story short, the Editorial Board needs to reevaluate the merits of humility in “professional growth.”

Besides this scenario, the proposed “cultural competency requirement” which would only include one pure language course would be significantly more likely to leave someone with no more knowledge of a language than 40 verb conjugations, while the current requirement of 3 semesters or an advanced (300) level course, whichever comes first, is much more likely to carry students to a conversational ability with the language they choose, even if it remains uncomfortable.

With increasing globalization and Duke’s own growing global presence, it is even more critical that we reaffirm our commitment to building relationships across cultures that are founded on humility and our desire to reach out on equal terms instead of imposing structures of knowledge and ignorance on our interactions with them. In terms of our language requirement, supposedly seen as a burden, the answer is not to replace it, but to re-emphasize the importance of a liberal arts education in the creation of a well-rounded individual and to be more aware of why languages are important.

Ben Brissette is a Trinity senior.


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