For my senior year, I decided to begin taking Chinese, the fifth foreign language I’ve studied in my life. Granted, I only consider myself remotely proficient in one of those. But I genuinely love studying languages, and will always jump at the chance to add another to my schedule. Learning to communicate in a new way is exciting, although the only things I can communicate in Chinese right now are that I am an American and I like coffee.
I’ve gotten mixed reactions to this. Some think it’s great. Some ask why I would want to do all that work. Some ask why I’m not taking Japanese, which has been my “main” foreign language for most of my life. Many are just perplexed when I say I added another language for fun.
I recognize that people have different skill sets and conceptions of “fun,” and not everyone considers practicing pictographs over and over a good time. However, I believe that studying a foreign language—or several foreign languages—contributes in a unique way to personal and human growth, whether or not it’s the kind of learning you enjoy. Of course, a literature seminar will presumably add something to your body of knowledge, and a math course will hone your quantitative ability. Every field of study helps you grow in some way. But as Americans, English speakers, and students at an elite college, we have a responsibility to learn at least one foreign language.
Otherwise, we will fall victim to complacency. As English speakers, we can expect to get by almost anywhere in the world without learning the language of each place to which we travel. International programs that allow participants with no language training can be beneficial, but inevitably they provide something of a cushion for those participants by allowing them to lean on English. English speakers are permitted to learn about and contribute to non-English-speaking locales without actually immersing themselves in the local language. People all over the world learn English, but too many English speakers do not learn languages from the rest of the world.
But what if we all did? What if we considered it obligatory to at least be familiar with the languages of the places we travel, or have an interest in? What if the cushion of English was taken away for those who reside in a foreign country?
The environment for learning a foreign language at Columbia is, in truth, quite hospitable. I’ve heard many complaints about the workload of language classes, but most of the complainers at least acknowledge the value of their hard work. Language students are kept on their toes at all times with daily classes and daily assignments. The uncomfortable feeling generated by the need to use a new or difficult language every day is perhaps the closest we can get here in New York to the uncomfortable feeling of total immersion. Learning a foreign language displaces us. We learn how it feels to struggle to communicate, to feel lost, and not understand. For many of us, it’s easy to take our advantages for granted. Language-learning is one of the few things that can knock us off center.
And so the language requirement, in my view, is one of the most important requirements at both Columbia and Barnard. Schools with no language requirement not only deprive their students of a fundamental part of their education, but fall down on their institutional responsibility to the international community. The more the nation’s educated elite understand the sensation of displacement, the brighter the future looks for global relations. To avoid neocolonialism, it is vital to make an effort to alter the lopsided balance of power. Learning foreign languages is one small way to do that.
However, the requirement is not enough: The greatest benefit of language learning comes with full commitment. We should aim therefore to reach beyond the requirement, to strive for proficiency in one or more languages. International encounters will then become true learning experiences: humbling, and an opportunity to build on previous knowledge.
I didn’t start Chinese for the reason that is often trumpeted: that China may be the world’s next great power and Chinese the next lingua franca. As speakers of the current lingua franca, we don’t have much of a reason to panic over future lack of understanding. I started it because I study East Asia, and because I want to understand its relationship to Japanese, and because I always want to learn another language. It can certainly be difficult—while struggling to master the “R” consonant, I thought, “pronunciation was so much easier in Japanese.” But then I remind myself that’s part of the point.
Cecille de Laurentis is a Barnard College senior majoring in Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures. Modest Proposals runs alternate Fridays.
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