Many Weinberg students are required to complete one-fifth of their total NU coursework – that is, almost an entire school year – in a subject likely to be entirely unrelated to their major. Judging by this metric, one might think that this subject is a vital prerequisite to living in contemporary society. However, learning a foreign language can hardly be said to be as such.
Don’t get me wrong – learning a foreign language can be not only a culturally enriching experience, but also a fantastic way to expand one’s point of view. Yet, to suppose that it is nearly as universally useful as, say, learning to code, learning interpersonal skills, or even acquiring basic financial literacy – none of which are required by Weinberg – is to vastly overestimate its practicality.
More importantly, however, the foreign language requirement detracts from what college should be about. Because of the inherent structure of a successful language class, the language requirement promotes unhealthy busywork. It’s no secret that learning a new language well necessitates constant exposure to it, and this is why living in a foreign country is by far the best way to learn a language. In order to emulate this in a classroom setting, teachers must dole out regular verb lists to conjugate and vocabulary sheets to memorize (which can be methodical, pedantic, and even algorithmic). College is about learning to think critically – not about attempting to put a computer out of work.
Additionally, because learning a new language requires intense exposure in order to promote language retention, most 100-level language classes hold class four or five times per week. And foreign language classes take attendance, in contrast to the majority of NU classes. This means that some students in foreign language classes spend more time each week in those classes than in their major’s. That’s not right.
The foreign language requirement also discourages students from trying a language other than the one they studied in high school, since doing so would mean two years of classes in the new language, as opposed to perhaps a quarter or two of the old. Again, college, which should be about branching out and trying new things, encourages students to stick with old things just because they’re easier.
This is not to mention that nearly all research suggests that, by the time one enrolls in college, one has almost certainly passed the maximum age at which it is still possible to become fluent in a new language. Combined with the fact that failing to actively use the language leads to its loss, this means that students who do not practice it will probably just forget their Weinberg-mandated foreign language in a few years anyway.
Finally, language difference is posing ever less of a barrier to interpersonal communication. With the help of Google Translate, for instance, you can already have an all-but-seamless online conversation with someone with whom you have no common linguistic facility. Facebook auto-translates posts in other languages into your own (admittedly rather poorly). As such technologies improve, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which instantaneous robo-translation becomes the norm in real life, too.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that only 33 percent of colleges and universities nationwide require students to attain intermediate proficiency in a foreign language, as Northwestern does. Weinberg students’ time would be better spent learning other, more useful, skills. No matter what replaces it (if anything), it’s time to bid adiós, 再见, au revoir, and अलविदा to Weinberg’s foreign language requirement.