Multilingualism? Mais oui!
before Sept. 11, Americas growing security needs and an
increasingly international business world fueled a need for more
speakers of foreign languages.
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.
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.
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.
objections reflect misconceptions about the purpose and value
of learning foreign languages. They also reinforce an escalating
spirit of anti-intellectualism and national arrogance.
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. Thats not the point.
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.
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.
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 isnt
perfect, but it is adequate for basic tasks and improves with
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.
busy Americans bother to learn a second language, even when its
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
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
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.
deeper, more intimate understanding of the world will not only
be a personal asset, but may further students professional
ambitions in ways they dont 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.