When Fluency No Longer Matters
There’s an infuriating move afoot in several major universities to “dumb down” graduation requirements by removing foreign language fluency from the core program of study. Some schools incredibly want to make a mere semester of a foreign language an elective and not a hard requirement for earning a diploma. When I was in college, we had to take four semesters of a foreign language in order to graduate. Soon, that minimal forced fluency that formed many generations of students will no longer be important to a college education.
I have a dog in this fight, I teach American Sign Language for fun and profit, but I also intrinsically believe every student must learn a foreign language in order to become a well-rounded citizen of the world; and I said so on April 15, 2011 in my article — “How to Kill Foreign Languages” —
There’s an easy way to encourage xenophobia — remove fruitful access to the acquisition and temptation of a language. You kill the meme by removing it from memory. Another way to discourage the foreign is to poke it with a stick or, more simply, use a budget axe to cleave the learning from the cleansed mind.
The canard against requiring foreign language fluency is fired from two barrels. The first is, of course, the sad, “We can’t afford it!” lamentation that has been stagnating the world since the beginning of time, and the second is the nefarious and hateful, “English rules the world, so why bother learning something else?”
English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.
Speaking a foreign language means thinking in a different culture and there is tremendous foundational human value in that immersion and acquisition of foreign ideals for comparison and contrast against your own core moral values. You learn about other rules and new memes. You travel through a compressed space and time. Your thoughts are expanded and deepened. Your reasoning and rational thinking are honed. You become a real person with something to contribute to the universe.
Speaking a language other than your mother tongue allows you to go outside your relative experience and touch history in ways you can’t get by not being a native speaker. Foreign Language study isn’t about learning cultural sensitivity. Foreign languages are all about going deeper inside your own mind and experiencing the world through a new set of senses. There is value in that critical exploration.
An “English Only” mandate is, and shall always be — self-defeating and nationally deconstructive.
For now, foreign language instructors should be prepared to write off advanced foreign language study because the current, trending, tide is carrying us off to sea for the drowning. It will be devastatingly hard for me to say goodbye to ASL Level 4 and ASL Level 3 and ASL Level 2 — but maybe, if I’m lucky, some good students might still be saying “Hello” to ASL 1 in two years. I doubt any foreign language study will still be around in another decade because learning new things will be seen as too hard, too expensive, too bothersome and too politically unpopular to covet.
Unfortunately, when colleges and universities tell their students that a semester of a foreign language is, essentially, the same as what four semesters of a foreign language used to be — they are purposefully lying to their students by suggesting a consistent and residual “fluency” that never can be, and never shall be, under the current state of collegiate mindlessness.