Wednesday, May 17, 2006

One Year of a Language

What’s the point, really, of requiring one year of a foreign language in college?

The key word in that sentence is ‘requiring.’ I’m not asking what’s the point of learning a foreign language, or even of taking just one year. I’m asking what’s the point of requiring one year. Requiring, as in, you can’t take other things you actually want to take because you have to make room for this.*

One year of a language, if you only take it because you have to, amounts to squat. It’s certainly not enough to actually use. I took one year of (nameless language) in college, crashed and burned, and carried the scar on my GPA until graduation. I remember maybe a dozen words of it. The experience was loathsome, fruitless, and damaging. My only solace has been to watch that country twist in the wind ever since. My theory as to its sustained misery: it’s because of that miserable excuse for a language.

Why do we inflict this on innocent students?

Honestly, why do we let students wait until college before starting a foreign language? Every study I’ve seen indicates that the best ages for language acquisition are before puberty. I say, give ‘em Spanish from preschool on. (In Canada, French.) Add something else (French? Japanese? Urdu?) in high school. But to require a full year in college achieves…what?

And why are we giving college credit for a course that teaches the same material that the better school districts teach in the seventh grade, if not earlier? Is there any other discipline for which that’s true?

(And don’t hit me with the ‘remediation’ argument. Remedial courses don’t count towards graduation. First-year language courses do.)

I know that the first exposure to a foreign language can shed some light on grammar, if only by contrast. (I first learned what an ‘infinitive’ was in my high school French class.) And yes, there’s some exposure to ‘diversity,’ although I remember spending a lot more time conjugating verbs than learning about how people lived. But if you want exposure to diversity, require sociology. There are better ways to achieve these ancillary goods, and none of them involves flashcards.

Reality being what it is, I’m willing to offer (and grant graduation credit for) introductory foreign language courses at the college level. After all, there are limits to what high schools can and will do. But I’m still unpersuaded that we should go from ‘offering’ to ‘requiring.’

Your thoughts?

*I’m consistently astonished at how many otherwise-intelligent people will argue for a requirement on the grounds that a given class is good. I assume it is; that’s irrelevant. A requirement squeezes out something else. To me, a compelling argument for a requirement would have to address why a given mandated class is better than any other alternative. Address the opportunity cost.