The independent news organization of Duke University

Time to drop the foreign language requirement

guest column

However well intended, Trinity's three-semester foreign language requirement is unnecessary, and there are much better ways to achieve its stated purpose of fostering “global understanding,” as Trinity’s website describes. The requirement should be dropped or modified substantially for many reasons.

First, three courses is a significant amount of a student’s curriculum. That's almost a semester of courses in itself. You can get a minor or certificate in many things by taking three courses.

Second, let’s face it, even with three semesters, you won’t be fluent in any language. Fluency most often requires living in a place (or household) that speaks the language. 

Third, it’s crazy expensive to take three courses of a language, which together constitute almost a full semester of course work. If the the goal is to learn a language, one can do so on line quicker for a few hundred dollars. That's worth repeating: students — and their families — are spending about $30,000 (if they pay full tuition) at Duke to take three course to gain minimal fluency in a language. Talk about elitist. 

Fourth, if it’s so important, why doesn’t Pratt require it of its students?

Fifth, speaking a foreign language is actually less necessary than ever. English has been adopted globally as the universal language. When I was a college student, if you travelled to Europe and tried to speak English, natives would refuse (even if they knew English). But today, it’s the opposite. Travel the world and if you try to speak the local tongue, natives will often respond in English and tell you they want you to speak English so they can practice and improve their English.

But most important, even if the goal is some vague “global understanding,” then being forced to take three semesters of language doesn’t achieve it. Not even close. If that’s the goal — so we are less ethnocentric — then swap language classes for history, political, philosophy and sociology classes of foreign cultures. That is way more likely to create “global understanding” than forcing three semesters of a foreign language on students.

In sum, assuming it was ever useful — or pedagogically worthwhile — the language requirement has outlived its utility. It only maintains because of inertia, wokeness or because of departmental politics (i.e. full employment act for language departments). I suppose one would run afoul of the DEI deities if one had the audacity to question it. But that's all the more reason to lean in and do so now.

If we analyze this dispassionately, it’s long past time the requirement is abandoned. At a minimum — same as at almost all other schools like Northwestern or UNC Chapel Hill — students should be able to test out of it or satisfy it in alternative ways. For instance, taking one semester of Spanish and then taking a semester abroad in Bolivia will leave a student a better Spanish speaker with deeper cultural understanding than taking three semesters of Spanish in Durham. Likewise, taking history and political science classes of foreign cultures will leave a student better versed in the culture than learning a language they may never use.

All said, there's a reason Duke is an outlier in requiring three semesters of a language, and it's not because Duke is a leader or ahead of the curve.

Jean DuBois is a Trinity alum from the Class of 1990.


Share and discuss “Time to drop the foreign language requirement” on social media.