Knowing Foreign Languages is Vital

Sarah Teyssen, an international political economy maj0r from Germany, studying at Fordham University, published her thoughts on the importance of foreign languages in Fordham University’s newspaper, The Ram (January 25, 2011).  I couldn’t agree with her more.   Here are her thoughts:

 

With government-subsidized public universities and private schools alike tightening their budgets, there seems to be agreement on the perfect area to make some deep cuts: foreign languages. For example, the State University of New York at Albany recently suspended majors in French, Italian and Russian. The high cost of the typically small and interactive course setup required to teach languages well, the long time period necessary to acquire proficiency and concerns about the relevance of “outdated” European languages like French or German all contribute to many schools cutting the availability of majors or even any coursework in many languages. And after all, the whole world speaks English anyway, right?

Even Fordham, a school that prides itself in preparing us for “leadership in a global society,” is no exception. The core curriculum does not require students earning a Bachelor of Science degree to pass an exit-level foreign language course. While it might make sense to lift the burden of up to five additional courses off of pre-med students and others looking for careers in mathematics or the natural sciences, the waiver also applies to those earning degrees in the Gabelli School of Business.

With GSB considering globalization one of its four areas of focus, the fact that its students do not need to learn any foreign language seems ironic. Yes, most of the world can communicate in English, but is that enough? If GSB students really aspire to form networks and business relations around the world, they will need to be able to connect with business partners on a deeper level than just being able to get ideas across. Everyone knows that if you order something in English in a restaurant abroad you will get your food, but if you make the effort to order in the local language, you will be greeted with an extra portion of admiration, friendliness and maybe even a free appetizer. In the business world, this might translate into having the competitive edge in a million-dollar contract. Many business students do understand that and the G.L.O.B.E concentration, the only GSB program requiring foreign language study, is becoming increasingly popular.

It seems relatively easy to convince business students of the importance of acquiring skills in languages such as Mandarin Chinese, especially as the economic power centers of the world are shifting so drastically. What about all those liberal arts majors who love to rant against Fordham’s huge core and especially the multi-course language requirement when they are not too busy complaining about the Caf food? Most cannot wait until they can concentrate on taking courses in their political science, history, philosophy, economics or communications majors and try to get the requirement out of the way by taking one or two courses in the language they already learned in high school, usually Spanish or French.

Of course there are general advantages to learning foreign languages, such as getting true insight into foreign cultures and realizing that the rest of the world does not in fact revolve around America, but in actuality there is no major, especially in the social sciences, that cannot be substantively enhanced by proficiency in a foreign language. Being able to read Rousseau, Aristotle, Kant and Marx in the original languages opens up a new world of meaning and true opportunity for scholarship and any relevant contemporary research in the social sciences will be severely limited if you cannot fully communicate with and thus truly grasp the background of those you are researching. For example, if you want to research the political issues that shape American politics today, Arabic and Farsi are invaluable; if you want to understand evolving economic forces, Hindi and Mandarin will certainly come in handy and anyone who wants to analyze current events will benefit from being able to read foreign news sources.

Studying foreign languages is essential and very relevant to almost all academic disciplines and certainly to those aiming for Bachelor of Arts and business degrees, but Fordham should require all of its students to study languages up to the exit level. Fordham is known for its core and for giving its students a structure that requires them to study those disciplines that Fordham deems essential for being an all-around educated person, such history and philosophy, and in no way can it be justified that foreign languages are excluded from this list. There might, however, be ways for making the large requirement more relevant and approachable to non-foreign language majors.  Lower credit options might make it easier to fit foreign language study into crammed schedules, pass-fail based courses would encourage those afraid of studying more challenging options and departments supporting the study of specific languages through counting them as electives to their majors might help. Come on Fordham, let students show the world that Americans do own passports and are prepared to be true leaders in a global society by respecting that there are in fact people who do not speak English.

Sarah Teyssen, FCRH ’13, is an international politcal economy major from Erding, Germany.

 

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