Some things are as predictable as the fall foliage and the winter snows, and one of those is the recurring critique of foreign languages and the foreign language requirement at HSC. Raymond Owen’s article in the Tiger (10/26/2012) is the most recent iteration of this time-worn chestnut.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the numerous studies that point to the unquestionable advantages of learning another language (including slowing down the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease) and concentrate on Mr. Owen’s central premise: that most H-SC students are not adequately equipped to profit from foreign-language instruction (other than Latin) because they are ill-prepared even in their native tongue and should therefore focus on mastering their own. On this central point, the Modern Languages department agrees: the poor preparation our students receive in foreign languages makes their learning curve in languages unnecessarily steep in college. We expect that Mr. Owen would agree that the fault for this lies with a woefully shortsighted, if not ignorant, educational policy. Some key educators in our society seem to believe that our youth do not need another language. As a result, many students, through no fault of their own, remain deeply ambivalent and distrustful towards languages because they have not been given the tools to succeed in them.
College should be the place to correct those misperceptions and set our students on the road toward foreign-language proficiency. Of course, it remains difficult, particularly if sentiments such as those reflected in Mr. Owen’s article persist. But college is also the place where Americans should learn that we cannot remain isolated from world-wide trends. All over the world, young students are learning foreign languages. They are becoming global citizens. They are developing the marketable skills that foreign languages and the exposure to foreign cultures provide. Learning a foreign language is no longer a luxury or mark of distinction, as in the age of Jefferson; it has become a necessity in a world in which global competition is a clear and ever-present reality. In my years of teaching German at H-SC, I have noticed my students getting better at foreign languages and showing greater interest. Perhaps that is because they get it. It is our hope that more Americans get it, especially in a liberal-arts college like H-SC. For only in this way will we in the United States retain our competitive edge and remain global leaders.
Dr. Dirk Johnson
Chair of Modern Languages