Response to: “Useless: Fordham’s Foreign Language Requirement”

language tree

Yesterday, a Fordham Ram columnist, whose work I typically respect and enjoy, wrote a disappointingly narrow-minded article about Fordham’s language requirement. Though I’m rarely the first to sing the praises of Fordham’s policies, be they academic or administrative, his weakly-argued denouncement of Fordham’s liberal arts language requirement has driven me to stand up in defense in a point-by-point response to his column.

The author starts his column by stating “if Fordham’s foreign language requirement worked, I would be able to write this column in Spanish,” accusing the program of failing to transform him into a bilingual writer, as if his role in the language-learning process was to sit back and absorb fluency through some sort of passive osmosis. This is one of the many short-comings of American students learning foreign languages. They assume that either it comes to them naturally or that they simply weren’t destined to be multi-lingual. As a linguistically inclined student, it used to be hard for me to pooh-pooh this sentiment; I empathized with those who didn’t have the same natural proclivity for foreign languages as I seemed to have, just as my innate talents fell short of physics and multi-variable calculus. However, if you’ve ever traveled outside these hallowed States-united (to places other than Canada, the UK, or “the islands”) then you’ll recognize just how obstinate you’re being. If an old Hungarian man running a fast food truck can speak fluent English, a language radically different from his own in just about every way, then you can plod your way through a lexically similar Romance language– or at least you should be able to after completing your fancy Rolex-a-month liberal arts private university education.

The author then goes on to complain that he can’t even form a coherent sentence in Spanish. That, my friend, is either result of your own stubbornness, a pig-headed refusal to push your own intellectual boundaries, or, even more disconcerting, you are sensationalizing the truth about what you have or haven’t learn in order to back up your argument.  I know for a fact that had you (you referring to the average Fordham student, not just the author) put in at least 10% of the effort into the class as you had into commiserating with your fellow classmates/martyrs or existentially pondering what purpose this could possibly fulfill in your life, you would be able to PUT TOGETHER A FREAKING SENTENCE. It’s actually heartbreaking to me that students consider this acceptable.

Furthermore, I cannot see the math that the author used to justify that the “average” Fordham student spends 150 hours language classes (it’s actually literally impossible for that to be the average, since it is the maximum number of hours needed to complete the requirement, and hundreds of students pass directly into the intermediate and advanced levels, but maybe I’m being pedantic about your use of the word average). Anyway, the point is that the “average Fordham student” doesn’t need to take the language every semester, as languages are graduation requirements for many high schools—I don’t know just how many, but I know it was true for my public schools system, and feel comfortable in saying it is true for the vast majority of private schools—so many students will come in with 3-4 years of SOME language under their belts. The introductory course should only be there for students who, laudably, are actually interested in starting a different language, or who weren’t required to take several years of it in middle or high school.

Then he continues that time spent on language courses (11% of your course-load to be exact, a number rendered bogus given my prior explanation) would be better used on other subjects, seemingly ignoring the purpose of a liberal arts core to begin with. (Require another credit to fulfill a major? Fordham’s major requirement are already high compared to other schools) Sure, many math and physics majors would argue that another class in their field would have more application in their careers than Spanish, but if they wanted to focus solely on their major subject area, then they didn’t have to come to a school that prides itself specifically on its well-rounded academic requirements. Furthermore, how can you say that philosophy is objectively more useful than a foreign language? Using your argument that the core offerings don’t prompt students to “master” the subject, is Fordham’s philosophy requirement also a waste of your time? I’m no master of philosophy after the core, but I don’t consider it worthless. Foreign language, philosophy, English, history and theology are all important components of the philosophy of Cura Personalis espoused by this university; you can’t discount one in favor of the other.

Instead of worrying so much about how that time could be better spent on other subjects, why don’t you worry about how the time could be better spent in THAT subject? Because I can’t say this enough: after 4 semesters of ANY subject, you should have a fairly sturdy grasp on it, whether it’s Accounting, Biology, or History, and a short-coming of that is a failure on your part. If you truly think the class would’ve been effective in another format, then maybe that’s a discussion you should bring up with the department, or at least a healthy debate you could have with your classmates.

As for the departments being stretched thin by the number of intro classes? I could concede that point to an extent, depending on the semester, who’s on sabbatical, etc. But is the appropriate response to cut the intro classes? Of course not. That’s equivalent to saying that Fordham should cut the philosophy requirement so that the same number of professors could teach more advanced classes. Fordham should simply add a few more professors to the budget. It shouldn’t be a question of siphoning from a fixed pot, but rather growing the pot.

I would also agree that Fordham dilutes the standards of its introductory language classes so that they can spoon-feed them to the masses. I can hardly blame them- they, the unfortunate souls tasked with a job equally vexing as say, trying to coax a house-cat into a brisk leash-walk through a quagmire- for watering it down. Unfortunately, this isn’t helping anyone. It’s slowing down the truly intellectually curious while trying to appease a population who has dug its heels into the ground in stark refusal. This would hardly be considered acceptable for the other liberal arts core standards: philosophy, theology, English composition and literary analysis, history, etc. Fordham should raise the bar. If you can’t complete a coherent session after 4 semesters, nay after 1 semester, you should not pass the class. Maybe this would be the motivation that the students need to actually absorb the knowledge, instead of just rolling their eyes and sighing for 4 semesters.

Finally, this columnist asserts that it’s “too late” to learn a language in college because after a certain point the brain loses its cognitive ability to develop native fluency (at least this is what he alludes to in his vague explanation of the fact). But that’s really ok. You will be fine if you speak grammatically acceptable French with an American accent. You’ll even be OK if you can never quite roll your Spanish rrrrrs.  No non-native English speaker has decided not to learn English because they may never be able to shake their accent or remember every conjugation. You don’t need to learn a second language to become perfectly bilingual. You need to learn a second language- Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, German, Wolof, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Swedish, Portuguese, it literally DOES NOT MATTER WHICH- to be a responsible global citizen. You need to show some respect for the international community. To throw up your hands and say it can’t be done is a slap in the face to everyone who has broken his or her back to learn your native tongue, and just because you won the birth-place lottery and happen to speak the most important and ubiquitous language in the modern world doesn’t mean that’s where you stop. Pull yourself together, suck it up, and learn a second language– at least more than asking where the bathroom is.

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