A defense of the foreign language requirement

guest column

The Oct. 27 guest column “Time to Drop the Foreign Language Requirement” tenders five arguments against the foreign language requirement. I think the arguments are rather weak and, more importantly, shortchange the significance of the humanities and a liberal arts education more generally. Although many Duke students are already multilingual or have been placed into more advanced foreign language courses, the column’s arguments seem to presume a monolingual English-speaking student with no foreign language experience, so let’s review the arguments in that context.

The first argument assumes, but does not explicitly state, a premise, namely that spending three courses on a foreign language is a waste of time, which is what needs to be demonstrated; the argument is circular.

The second argument – that three semesters of foreign language won’t bring fluency, so should not be undertaken – likewise tacitly presupposes that one should study a foreign language only if one thereby achieves fluency. But fluency is a matter of degree, as the column implies by including the term “minimal fluency.” Of course, studying abroad will improve abilities and increase one’s level of fluency more quickly. Duke’s foreign language departments have several means to incorporate study abroad even at the intro level and to facilitate combining study abroad with courses satisfying a student’s non-foreign language major. 

The third argument claims that if the goal is to learn a language, one can do it elsewhere than at Duke at less time and expense. Presumably, the column’s author means instruction through MOOCs, community colleges, downloadable apps and so on. He provides no evidence that these methods teach languages as well or better than in-class instruction that no doubt will soon be supplemented with — not replaced by — personalized language chatbots, automated homework correction and explication programs and other technologies. Duke’s introductory foreign language courses typically have four contact hours per week in addition to homework and cultural activities, and those classes are comprised of small groups in which students are actively learning in real-time with their peers, not passively attending large lectures or online videos or clicking app buttons in isolation. Moreover, what those other sites and modes of education typically do not provide is study abroad, cultural activities (conversation hours, films, lectures, etc.), accompanying internships in countries with the foreign language, a well-prepared path to upper-level seminars, individual research, honors thesis, and so on. Just like other intro-level courses at Duke, foreign language courses open exciting avenues of learning and growth. 

Furthermore, if the column’s claim were true, what classes at Duke can one not learn more cheaply and quickly elsewhere? What intro-level Duke courses should a student still take? Isn’t it the case that classes like intro physics, intro chemistry, intro biology, first-semester calculus, intro economics and intro psychology could all also be taken online or in a community college for less money? And those other intro-level courses at Duke are usually large lecture classes, unlike the pedagogical experience afforded by intro-level foreign language courses which are smaller and have higher contact hours.

The fourth argument claims that since Pratt doesn’t have a foreign language requirement, neither should Trinity. But Pratt is a school of engineering, and Trinity is a liberal arts institution; the schools have different missions. Moreover, while not a liberal arts institution, Pratt does require a writing course and five courses in humanities and social sciences, which include foreign language courses. Other outstanding technical schools in the U.S. such as MIT and Caltech also have robust humanities course requirements, including foreign-language courses.

The fifth and final argument claims that, if the goal of studying a foreign language is to foster “global understanding,” then there are other, non-foreign language courses that facilitate attaining that goal, and so foreign language courses should not be required. But this suggests a rather superficial, generalizing sense of “global understanding,” one that might also be obtained from, say, watching YouTube travel videos. On the contrary, studying a foreign language uniquely exposes one to the experience of trying to think in a different language, a different conceptual-historical-cultural scheme, to maneuver in a different “world,” and invites one to look through others’ eyes, speak others’ tongues, inhabit — however partially, however “minimally” — others’ lives and ways of living. It doesn’t foster a unifying, generalizing “global understanding.” Rather, it can induce defamiliarization, the experience of otherness and the sense of not being at home everywhere — precisely the kind of experience that is resistant to the leveling of all into a universal, instrumentalized and increasingly global English patois.

Based on the reasoning outlined here, I think the column does not successfully make its case. In conclusion, let’s briefly consider why, for the monolingual English speaker, acquiring facility in a foreign language and, more importantly, acquiring the higher-level experiences that are enabled by that facility in the foreign language — study abroad, engagement with intellectual works in the foreign language, etc. — should be an essential part of a liberal arts education. As mentioned above, the acquired ability to orient oneself in a foreign language and culture is first of all to undergo the discomfiting but ultimately transformative first-personal experience of not knowing one’s way about, and then expanding one’s ability to think and feel, to cotton on to and be enriched by a “world” that is different in terms of intellect and sensibility, to inhabit two worlds instead of one, to lose one’s sense of self-certainty and then find a different, more complicated self in a different, more complicated world. 

Let me provide two (admittedly anecdotal) consequences of attaining this kind of intellectual growth in a foreign language and culture. First, foreign language study has intrinsic value: It is the beginning of what can be a lifelong trajectory of personal growth, expansive horizons and enriching experiences. My foreign language studies led to extensive living and working experiences in Russia, Germany and Italy and engendered relationships that continue to this day. To name just a few of my more recent experiences, I’ve interpreted Russian-German for Ukrainian refugees in Berlin, worked with an Italian doctoral student in philosophy, partaken in a literary event via Zoom in St. Petersburg, served as an evaluator for a Canadian dissertation in French and more. None of these opportunities and eventualities occurred to me when I was choosing what courses or majors to take as an undergraduate, but none of them could have happened without the choices I made back then. 

Second, from a narrow, vocational point of view, foreign language study has far-reaching, though indirect, extrinsic value. A quick Google search will yield CEOs, medical school presidents, tech leaders, etc. insisting on the value of liberal arts and language study to their professions. I was hired after college as a “knowledge engineer” (AI was being hyped hard then as it is now) by an MIT startup firm to work on building an AI expert system in the financial services domain. My major in math/CS was important because they knew I could learn their proprietary programming language quickly. But decisive was my second major in Russian and my experience living abroad because they indicated a mental agility and ability to learn, communicate and “translate” between the software developers and the MBAs whose “knowledge base” we were attempting to formalize computationally. 

Thus, in my view, the question is not whether the foreign language requirement should be dropped, but rather why one would wish to narrow the horizons of a Duke liberal arts undergraduate degree.

Henry Pickford is a professor of German Studies and Philosophy and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in German Studies at Duke.

The Chronicle is committed to highlighting voices from the Duke community. If you're interested in submitting a guest column, email opinion@dukechronicle.com.


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