Jan. 25-31, 2002
Back Issues
Department exploring options as enrollment pressures build
HR adds Career Services office
Northern Virginia still tops state as fastest growing area in population
Multilingualism? Mais oui!

Allende illuminates U.Va. audience

African-American Heritage Month at U.Va.
Rev. Floyd Flake to speak Feb. 5
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
New lecture series features ethics and global health
Director attends Charlottesville debut
Blake exhibition opens Jan. 26
Johnson leads others to the law, promotes minority faculty hires
Cheryl Krueger
Jack Mellott

Multilingualism? Mais oui!

By Cheryl Krueger

Even before Sept. 11, America’s growing security needs and an increasingly international business world fueled a need for more speakers of foreign languages.

As a nation, we have fallen lamentably behind other developed countries. Only 8 percent of college students in the United States study a foreign language, a level that has held steady for the past quarter century, according to the National Foreign Language Center.

In particular, the Defense and State Departments, the FBI, CIA and other federal agencies trying to cope with terrorism have been scrambling to find speakers of certain Middle Eastern and Central Asian languages. They are nearly impossible to find.

University of Virginia students in the College of Arts & Sciences must complete two years of a foreign language to graduate. Yet arguments persist among students against studying foreign languages — they serve no immediate purpose; they divert attention from more practical courses; they are too difficult and time consuming for young adults who want to prepare for careers based in the United States.

Such objections reflect misconceptions about the purpose and value of learning foreign languages. They also reinforce an escalating spirit of anti-intellectualism and national arrogance.

Do all of the students who take two years of a foreign language use it in research, travel or business? Of course not. Nor do all the students who take chemistry, math or history retain or use what they learn once they leave school. That’s not the point.

A liberal arts education is by definition multi-disciplinary. Students who study liberal arts need to look beyond their immediate focus of interest, beyond the comfort zone of their individual talents to embrace new perspectives. That is what helps develop critical thinking skills that students will need for a wide range of careers in government, education and industry.

Do children learn foreign languages more easily and quickly than adults? Yes. They also learn reading, writing and arithmetic more easily than adults. Students should not expect to be fluent after taking language courses for one hour a day, three times a week for a year or two. Still they can make good progress in that time.

Near-native fluency requires time and dedication. Fortunately, language acquisition benefits learners at every stage. I have received letters from students who, after taking no more than two years of French, served as translators for their friends while traveling abroad, conducted research and taught in French universities. Their French isn’t perfect, but it is adequate for basic tasks and improves with further effort.

After as little as two years of college French, American students enroll in French universities, where they read, write, speak and take their exams in French. Language teachers frequently hear from alumni who never dreamed they would use their language skills as much as they do.

Should busy Americans bother to learn a second language, even when it’s a struggle? Absolutely. Gaining even minimal competency in a foreign language demonstrates respect for other cultures. Learning another language forces us to think outside our standard frame of reference, to recognize that our mode of communication is just one among many.

Understanding a new language changes the way we see ourselves and makes us aware that those who know our language know more about us than we do about them.

Whether or not they major in French, students poring over grammar and reading excerpts from Marcel Proust and Mariama Bâ, should congratulate themselves. They — and students of any foreign language — have transcended the cultural confines of monolingualism, and internalized an understanding of intellectual diversity.

That deeper, more intimate understanding of the world will not only be a personal asset, but may further students’ professional ambitions in ways they don’t yet grasp and help the country meet its burgeoning foreign language needs.

Associate Professor Cheryl Krueger directs U.Va.’s French language program. Her editorial is excerpted from the January 2002 A&S Online publication.


© Copyright 2002 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

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