Concerned with providing the best liberal arts education possible, St. Olaf College has highlighted within its mission statement that a liberal arts education is “intrinsically global and pluralistic.” That is to say, St. Olaf believes any strong academic education involves an emphasis on learning in a global context and in direct relationships with people around the world. To that end, depending on the language, the current curriculum at St. Olaf requires between two and four foreign language credits (FOL) to complete the language requirements.
The language component of the General Education (GE) curriculum has been put into place so students can develop into global citizens. However, within recent years many students have petitioned to reduce the number of foreign language classes they must take due to anxiety or lack of aptitude for learning new languages. Therefore, one may ask the question: is the FOL requirement necessary? One may also take into account whether between two and four semesters of language learning can allow one to develop full fluency.
As a student at St. Olaf College who majors in a foreign language, I find it difficult to qualify the value of foreign language learning. I find that learning a second (if not third or fourth) language is priceless. Learning another language is not merely about acquiring a new alphabet and vocabulary but about learning to think in a completely novel way. Many people who speak more than one language actually mention that they have different personas for each language they speak, highlighting that each one can literally changes someone’s perspective. Foreign language acquisition enhances one’s critical thinking skills, changes one’s relationship with the world around them and as some studies have shown, even enhances one’s mathematical and scientific reasoning skills. That said, I do not believe an FOL requirement of four credits is practical or necessary for St. Olaf students.
First and foremost, the FOL requirement should not be necessary because it is nearly (if not entirely) impossible to become fluent in another language over the course of four semesters. Although one may become acquainted with another culture through four semesters of coursework, typically, it is incredibly difficult to reach a high enough level of comprehension to begin to think or reason in another language. The goal of becoming a “global citizen” through foreign language acquisition depends, in my opinion, largely on one’s ability to comprehend the mindset of another culture by being able to think in the language of that culture. That is not to say that one can never be a global citizen without a second language, but it seems a foreign language can only make one more of a global citizen insofar as one is able to understand the culture better because they are able to comprehend the culture through its native tongue. Unfortunately, a few semesters of language learning will not, in most cases, grant students this level of language acquisition.
Perhaps more at stake than the level of proficiency one gains in FOL coursework is the fact that many students no longer have a strong capacity to learn a new language (and be successful in learning said language) at the age in which they enter college. I have been quite fortunate in my own life to have started learning foreign languages as a toddler. Because of this, I have received quite a bit of exposure to a select few foreign languages, and I am lucky to have an aptitude for them. However this kind of exposure to foreign languages is not commonplace in the United States. Many people in the U.S. do not begin to learn a second language until middle school or later. Thus, students are entering universities with extreme foreign language learning anxiety and in many cases these students struggle to make sense of second language acquisition at all. I believe the “requirement” for foreign language learning should not be implemented at the collegiate level, but should instead be integrated systemically into our school systems so students can begin to learn another language when their brains can most easily acquire it. Learning another language from a younger age will also ensure that one receives the benefits which arise from foreign language acquisition, because one’s brain will be less fully developed and more pliable.
As mentioned earlier, I find learning a foreign language is immensely valuable and in many ways essential to becoming the most “globalized” citizen one can be. Due to the nature of language acquisition, I do not believe it is higher education’s responsibility to require a language component because it is unlikely that it will result in the successful acquisition of another language. It appears to me that the education system must change as a whole, starting from early education, in order for students to obtain a more extensive global perspective.
Abigail Schneekloth ’20 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Rochester, Minn. Her major is French and Philosophy.