The Infeasibility of Learning a Language in College

Requiring all students in pursuit of a BA to take multiple semesters of expensive, inefficient foreign language courses is BS.

By Josephine Werni, University of Minnesota Twin Cities


Many universities impose a foreign language requirement, typically 2-4 semesters of classes, for all students in pursuit of a Bachelor of Arts.

It doesn’t matter if you’re studying philosophy or underwater basket weaving; if the degree you’re toiling toward is preceded by the capital letters B and A, you’re also expected to be “proficient” in a second language by the time you graduate.

I’m currently working on a BA in journalism through a university that holds this particular exaction. The whole idea behind it is that students who are enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts are supposed to be well rounded and culturally aware—only if they’re getting a BA, though. Apparently chemists aren’t expected to be “global citizens.”

Anyways, it’s evident that when universities implement foreign language requirements, they’re coming from a good place. However, as is the case with many ideas that sound swell in theory, it turns out that forcing a massive pool of individuals to set aside four semesters to study something completely unrelated to their degree doesn’t play out too well in practice.

If I had to pick one word to describe the climate of my mandatory Spanish course, I’d go with “strained.”

Four mornings a week, I attend this class and observe the huge cluster of miscellaneous BA majors who are annoyed that they have to be there and consequently don’t give a shit possess minimal enthusiasm. As the semester unfurls and group projects roll around, the tiny handful of students who are actually Spanish majors or minors become increasingly exasperated with their classmates’ apathy.

I think I’d plop myself somewhere in the middle of the motivation spectrum. I make an honest effort in this class, but I understand where my BA peers’ resentment is coming from. I harbor a bit of it myself, and I know that it stems from a problem more complex and pertinent than simply not wanting to put in the effort of learning another language.

If you hadn’t already guessed by this point, I’m going to be making the argument that liberal arts foreign language requirements aren’t worth it.

My issue with general second language requisites ultimately comes down to the fact that the current system is ridiculously inefficient, both cost and result-wise.

To start, although BA students spend an average of two years completing 20ish credits (will vary somewhat with different schools/languages) in order to achieve a certain level of proficiency, they usually don’t come out of it anywhere near fluent. And of course, if they have no intention to continue to study the language regularly or utilize it in their career later on, they’ll likely forget most of it faster than it took a lot of politicians to forget about Trump’s sexual assault charges.

It isn’t that language professors are teaching poorly or that students are refusing to retain anything, it’s just a little unrealistic to expect adults to have some sort of firm, indelible grasp on a foreign language after a few semesters of classroom-based learning. By this point, our brains have lost that spongy quality that makes them so damn good at language learning during childhood.

Unfortunately, the price that students pay for moderate, temporary proficiency is absurdly high. I calculated that I’ve shelled out roughly $4,000 for my four semesters of mandatory Spanish. With 100 of those dollars, I could have just bought Rosetta Stone. With a portion of that money, I could have just gone and lived in a Spanish-speaking country for several months, absorbing the language through the exalted immersion method. It would have been much more effective and enjoyable, that’s for sure.

Are Liberal Arts Language Requisites Really Worth It?

Image via Centro Mundolengua

Overall, I think that it’s rather shitty to ask students to spend a disproportionately large amount of time, money and effort on studying a skill that 1) they won’t come close to mastering and 2) isn’t the subject that they’re here to study and get a degree in.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone would love to learn another language on the side, if not multiple, given adequate time and means. College might have been the ideal environment at one point, but it isn’t anymore.

As I’m sure all of you are well aware, higher education has become astronomically expensive, and most people are just trying to get in and out as fast as they can to avoid crippling debt. It simply is no longer the right time or place for a lot of people to cram in a foreign language, especially when there are so many other ways to learn one without going broke and/or extending your graduation date.

But Americans Are So Linguistically Ignorant Compared to Europeans!

“We can’t trash these collegiate language requirements or we’ll never catch up.”  

Yes, it’s obvious that the United States is dawdling behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to multilingualism. I’m not saying that foreign language should never be taught in American schools ever, period—I’m arguing that it shouldn’t be compulsory in college due to the modern nature of college.

If Americans would like to be linguistically competitive, then maybe we should start teaching languages the way successfully multilingual countries do. These countries tend to implement second language learning at a young age when it’s free and everyone’s still learning the same things with their spongy, youthful brains.

The language education begins early and continues through secondary schooling. That way, everyone, not just individuals who will go on to pursue a BA, ends up with a confident grasp of a foreign articulation. In other words, what’s been proven to work is sort of the opposite of what we’re doing over here with notions like liberal arts language requisites.

What About the Other Gen Ed Requirements?

I believe that foreign language is a different situation from that of other general education requirements for a number of reasons. For starters, learning a language is considerably more intensive and time consuming than completing that single social science prerequisite. You can’t teach Japanese the same way you teach biology or history.

Also, they serve different purposes. While having control over a second language is an invaluable skill, it’s not necessarily something you need on a daily basis. On the other hand, understanding things like basic math, grammar and geography are essential to thriving out in the world as a grown ass person.