Studying a foreign language is vital

By Jacob Russian

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(Collegian File Photo)

Throughout my adolescence, the school system I was educated in placed a heavy emphasis on studying foreign language from a young age. Looking back, I think the push for parents to involve their children in these programs was partially a push for these same families to accept that English might not necessarily be the predominant language of the future here in the United States. Studying a foreign language is absolutely necessary to prepare children and young adults to exist in a more interconnected and culturally diverse world—one that certainly does not speak a single common language. Slashing programs focused on proficiency in foreign languages puts American students at an extreme global disadvantage, especially as students all over the world study foreign languages without question.

With such an emphasis on a broader world in mind, why are institutions of higher education like the University of Massachusetts choosing to diminish the presence of foreign language programs? This fall, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences began talks of doing away with foreign language requirements for its students, an act that would place many undergraduates at a disadvantage in their future careers. Certainly, the majors involved in SBS involve interpersonal communications with individuals who may speak languages other than English. To name a few, the college includes majors such as communications, economics, journalism, legal studies and political science. As a communication major myself, I find it absolutely appalling that SBS may remove a language requirement for a discipline focused particularly on how human beings interact with one another. To me, it seems like a serious impediment in teaching students to be competitive in a fast paced, global job market.

Recently, I spoke with French instructor Justine Maloberti, who has been working to convey the absolute necessity of foreign language programs here at UMass. According to Maloberti, if SBS does away with the requirement, enrollment levels for classes could dwindle down to almost nothing. She also mentioned how detrimental it would be to deny students access to foreign language studies that they may not have had before college due to their socioeconomic backgrounds, therefore unfairly withholding vital educational experiences for these students. She went on to contend that students must be exposed to foreign culture as a means of growing as people in an international sense, and that they must be given the tools to function outside of their comfort zones.

Along with these concerns, Maloberti also said that those interested in learning a language without being required to by their colleges would have fewer choices in classes, resulting in less diversity and ultimately less preparation for life beyond college. Maloberti believes that the foreign language department would effectively lose much of its funding, though it is already dealing with budget issues currently. I find it surprising that a university focused on building its reputation for providing high standards of education would allow such a potentially negative decision to be made on behalf of countless students who are eager to get ahead.

Apart from the focus on cultural relationships abroad, it seems important to recognize the ever-changing tides of language and minority groups here in the U.S., especially as minority groups begin to become more prevalent in American society. The number of Spanish speakers in the U.S. has increased drastically over the past 20 years, with estimates of about 50 million “hispanohablantes” currently living in the country. Not only is there an increase in people speaking languages other than English, but cultural changes have gripped the nation as well, as the top US television networks compete with Spanish television networks for viewership. Such drastic change demands that we assess how the youth of America are educated, and ensure that there is an emphasis on bilingualism and appreciating other ways of life. Not only will these skills assist individuals in the job market and interpersonal communication, but studying other languages has been linked to improved memory, a longer attention span and a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline.

With social, emotional and physical health implications in mind, I urge the students of UMass to recognize the importance of studying foreign language as a means of interacting meaningfully with the world. At this point in global development, we cannot afford to risk failing to form relationships with other countries simply because our students lack the ability to communicate thoughtfully in languages that aren’t English. We cannot ignore the irresponsible nature of allowing this university to ignore the value of foreign language and cultural studies.

Jacob Russian is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]