Should Drew University have language requirements? Intuitively, I would say “yes.” However, the topic can be a contentious one. Many students argue that foreign language classes are a waste of their time and that the three required classes are too many, especially given their already demanding schedules. To get a better sense of why colleges have language requirements—and the benefits of these requirements—I sat down and interviewed two professors who teach foreign language courses.
First, I spoke with Professor Marie-Pascale Pieretti, Chair of the French and Italian Department, who teaches a great variety of classes concerning the French language as well as the history and culture of the Francophone world. Pieretti offered many perspectives on the value of learning another language, saying, “It’s an incredible skill to have when you are beyond your diploma…Many, many companies advertise internships and jobs with a sentence at the bottom of that ad that says, ‘Proficiency in a language other than English is a plus.’” In addition to the concrete advantages of language skills, Pieretti explained many of the unexpected benefits of language learning: “It has very practical applications, but aside from that, it’s also a window into various cultures and, it really teaches students a lot about their own culture…By being exposed to different traditions and cultures, you learn a lot about your own.”
Pieretti also emphasized that the cultural awareness generated through language learning will become increasingly important in an increasingly globalized world and job market. “When you graduate from Drew, you’re not on some small job market that only pertains to Americans, you are on a global job market,” she said.
Professor Pieretti’s statements were largely echoed in my interview with Professor Joshua Kavaloski, who teaches a wide variety of courses in German language and culture as well as many classes concerning various topics in film, literature and history taught in English. Kavaloski also described both the concrete and abstract values of learning another language. Concretely, language offers us the ability to communicate with more people in an effective way.
“We’re living in an increasingly globalized world where we, even as Americans, are no longer only able to rely on English…A college should try to educate its students to become global citizens,” Kavaloski said. Additionally, in the abstract, learning a new language opens new horizons for people intellectually. “I’ve experienced, for myself, learning German, I was better able to understand my own country by comparing America’s history and its culture with that of another land,” Kavaloski said.
I find that many students perhaps don’t immediately grasp the importance of learning a second language, partially because of the hegemony of American culture and the English language. We tend to view learning a second language as an unnecessary chore rather than as a very necessary skill to thrive in the modern world.
However, the global dominance of the English language is slowly fading away as more high-quality music, movies and media are being produced abroad in different languages. For example, “RRR,” a Telugu-language Tollywood film produced in Hyderabad, India has enjoyed recent global success.
As Pieretti pointed out, Americans can no longer count on competing solely with other Americans for jobs, regardless of field, as talent and companies become increasingly global. Firms will not just be hiring capable employees from the United States, but from every country and continent, and a monolingual American may look increasingly unimpressive.
Careers in STEM, humanities and the arts all can benefit from knowing a second language. Thus, the requirement for all students to fulfill at least three classes of language study, regardless of major, is reasonable. I would even argue that American universities could go even further in their language requirements, given that near-fluent proficiency in English is expected in many universities across Europe compared to the intermediate level of proficiency in a foreign language that most American students achieve. Some students will always bemoan having to take language courses. However, they’ll likely later find that their language skills, however sparse, have unintended benefits, be it needing help in a foreign country or simply introducing themselves to a new coworker.
Ian Odell is a first year majoring in international relations.