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Letter to the editor

I read The Chronicle’s Apr. 12 piece on the proposed reduction of Duke’s language requirement with great dismay. As a Duke graduate and former faculty member in linguistics and Romance Studies, I am both familiar with and saddened by students’ reactions to Duke’s language requirement.

Too often, these reactions highlight the supposed undue burden the requirement places on students, particularly in STEM and pre-professional programs. In my time in the Duke community, I heard many students say that the foreign language requirement adversely affected their chances of getting into law school or medical school. I have heard many variations of the argument that foreign languages are an unnecessary waste of time in an increasingly English-dominated world, and that taking classes in a language in high school and college almost never produces meaningful fluency. With such a low return on investment, the argument goes, why even bother? If not fluency, what do students get out of language classes? 

Here’s my answer to that, taken from quite a few years on both sides of the podium.

Language classes can be a great way to learn to check your own ego, to laugh at yourself, to think on your feet, to learn to interact with others more easily, to talk through complex concepts in simple words, to expand your memory for facts and patterns, to re-examine your own assumptions about the world and how you interact with it, to be reminded that people speak differently and think differently than you do, and to learn to find the good in things, even if they're things you don’t want to do.

I currently work in software design and don’t use my Spanish and Portuguese every day, but not a day goes by where I don’t use a skill from that list. Language study is more than flash cards and conjugations—it’s an opportunity for enrichment and self-reflection and should be appreciated as such. You’ll still get into med school.

Jim Fitzpatrick (T'03) is a former faculty member in the Romance Studies Department.


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