A recent New York Times article talks about the advantages of bilingualism. Anyone who knows me/knows my blog will know that I’m a huge advocate of foreign language studies and believe everyone should be [at least] conversational – in at least two languages (see my response a few months ago to colleges cutting back on language programs). In the NYT piece, cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok talks about some of the advantages of speaking a second language. Among these are improved multitasking capabilities and delayed onset of Alzheimer’s.
A recent New York Times article announced that many state colleges are delivering a coup d’état to their language programs in response to budget cuts. Reading this actually frustrated me.
Languages are extremely important. To assume English fluency is sufficient is “anglocentric,” as Dr. Rosemary Feal put it. It’s also, to be quite frank, arrogant. Yes, we speak English here in the U.S., but what about the rest of the world? By limiting the opportunities to study foreign languages, we are hindering our potential on the international stage. What about the ability to communicate with international business partners? And what about having competent translators? I understand that some universities are only cutting certain languages (like French and Italian) but some of our college students are burgeoning diplomats and will need the European languages as well.
Dr. Hamilton, executive vice chancellor from Louisiana State University, is quoted in the NYT article and sums it up well:
“We should be adding languages and urging more students to take them… I’m being asked to prepare students for the global economy, but this is almost like asking them to use the abacus instead of computers.”
Many graduate programs (even in engineering and the sciences) require competency in a second language. Making cuts to language programs impedes the already difficult task of fitting language courses into an engineering/science schedule. These program cuts – some of which even include graduate programs – are also costing tenured university professors their jobs.
Even as a scientist, I believe at least four semesters of a language should be a requirement for graduation. Actually, I think we should be teaching foreign languages in elementary schools, when students are the best age to learn a second (or third) language, but that’s a whole new blog post. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but I honestly believe programs like philosophy and women’s studies should be cut first. Foreign languages are just too critical.