November 10, 2022

WEIRENS | Language Requirement: Too Much, Much Too Late?

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I gazed into my notebook, flipping through to prepare for my upcoming German prelim. Hundreds of vocabulary words, massive verb charts and pages of practice sentences stared back at me. Hours of listening activities, speaking practice and YouTube University awaited afterward. But such is learning a language. The achievement of fluency requires a massive amount of time and effort. However, is this reward attainable for a college student pursuing a completely different and demanding course of study? Perhaps for a few, but on a broad scale I think not. I believe the ability to develop language skills at Cornell depends far more on the knowledge that students have brought to Cornell, and it is not enough to set them up for practical success in language studies.

The College of Arts & Sciences, the largest college at Cornell, has many graduation requirements across a broad range of studies. In typical liberal arts fashion, it allows students with aptitudes for STEM to try their hand at humanities, and vice versa, as well as more interesting requirements like the significant language requirement. The numerous details and exceptions are outlined on A&S’s website, but the general idea is that you can take one advanced class, or “at least 11 credits,” (which translates to either two semesters of schedule-gobbling language classes, or three slightly less time-consuming options). The beginning-intermediate level Spanish syllabus spells out an ominous promise of two hours practice necessary a day, which I certainly utilized before dropping and switching into German, which I am finding far more enjoyable. 

Let me emphasize that I love my German class at Cornell. My TA Nicolau is awesome, and I love practicing with my classmates and fluent friends. But a language is different from a history or economics class. Reaching the same level of achievement in a language compared to a different academic class may demand significantly more time, which isn’t particularly practical when you’re trying to achieve mastery in your respective major. It’s worth noting that I spend more time on my one German class than my other three classes combined. 

So why is this the case? It’s simply science. The latest research on language education, a 2018 Boston study involving over 600,000 participants, confirms what many already know: it’s incredibly easier to learn a language when you’re younger. By the time you’re 18, your language potential is minuscule compared to your capabilities in your early teens or childhood. It’s a slim window. And American education grossly fails to capitalize on it. 

America should follow the example of the rest of the multilingual world, where reality backs up scientific evidence. I discussed this with two of my friends, Julianne Berry-Stoelzle ’25 and Tomas Beariault ’25, who each spent several years living in Germany and Switzerland, respectively. “What really stood out to me was how early these languages were introduced through the school system,” said Berry-Stoelzle when reflecting on her time in Germany. “In the school I would visit, everyone learns English beginning in the 3rd grade. It’s a requirement that they learn young. By 6th or 7th grade they begin to learn French or Latin. By 10th grade you can take on Spanish, or keep learning just two languages and get on the STEM track. When you learn languages earlier, they’ll stick with people longer,” she explained. This practice stands in stark contrast to the American language system, where the results speak for themselves. “I don’t know a single person who has learned Spanish fluently through the American public school system,” remarked Beariault, a former resident of Switzerland (where the language education is similar to Germany). 

In an increasingly interconnected world, bilingualism or even multilingualism is a goal all should strive for — a goal that I believe our education has an obligation to assist in fulfilling. The entire world shouldn’t be held to the expectation that “everyone just knows English.” For starters, I believe that it’s time the United States developed the norm of fluency in Spanish. This would reflect the diversity in this country and make sense from a social and economic standpoint, in addition to increasing students’ cultural education. If politicians can see the importance behind this reasoning, perhaps then they can work from within to spur reform. Childhood education is the time and place where resources and effort should be placed for language education — not during college. 

By the time students arrive at Cornell, there’s not much they can teach language-wise that most students will be able to retain. It’s a huge opportunity cost to force students to spend hours and hours each week learning a language they will likely forget. There’s only four years to be an undergrad at Cornell, a limited time that must be spent honing valuable skills that pay off the most dividends later in life. Instead of punishing students for the failure of the American education system for the sake of their ideological principles, Cornell should impose an alternative to their A&S language requirement. I propose a broader requirement for courses in international cultural understanding. 

While A&S is right in that it is essential to understand and appreciate cultures across the world, there are multiple different frameworks from which you can understand them. One of them is through a foreign language, but that is not the only way. Forcing students into this high workload framework while ignoring other frameworks such as art, history, religion, music, or literature is close-minded. I hope Cornell will consider this in the future and adopt a more informed mindset when considering the context in which their policies such as the language requirement exist. 

Aurora Weirens is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] The Northern Light runs alternate Thursdays this semester.