May 29, 2009

Examining the Core: Foreign language

The U of C foreign language requirement represents a good balance of breadth and depth.

This is the final part of a four-part examination of the state of the Core.

For the most part, the foreign language requirement represents an ideal balance of breadth and depth for Core courses. The requirement aims to have all students reach a level of competence in a single language. This is achieved through a full year of study, which can be passed out of by means of AP or IB testing, a University placement test or competency exam, or an intensive language-focused study abroad program.

A year of study in a single language will not yield anything close to fluency. Indeed, with languages that are more challenging to English-speakers, such as Chinese and Arabic, even four years of study in Hyde Park might not bring all students up to a point of total literacy and conversational ease.

But the goal of the required year of study is not to make students fluent—it is to give them a base from which they can expand their knowledge. A year in the University’s 100-level courses is sufficient to do this, cultivating a fundamental understanding of the grammar and syntax of a language and solid, if elementary, competency.

Perhaps more importantly, it shows students what learning a language means and can mean. While two or three quarters of calculus won’t transform students into mathematicians, it teaches them math as a concept; the same is true of a year’s worth of a foreign language. The goal is to expose students to a foreign language, and to teach them how languages are learned and used. Moreover, exposure to a new language often gives people a unique perspective on their native tongue, as well as a better appreciation of the cultures that use the language being studied.

The University, therefore, does a disservice to students by allowing them to skip this element of the Core with AP and IB scores—3 and 5, respectively—when it is not really clear whether such students have a solid understanding of the language. Instead, it should be stricter in ensuring that all students truly receive a foundation in foreign language by raising the requisite AP score to 4 and the IB score to 6.

The foreign language requirement, in its current incarnation, has much to offer and succeeds in giving students the foundational learning that is at the heart of the Core. Administrators should keep the requirement as is.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and two additional Editorial Board members.