A reconsideration of the value of language learning in college (opinion)
Learning a language is one of the most transformative things a student can do during their college years. In nearly two decades of teaching Spanish in American universities, I have never heard a student say, “I wish my parents hadn’t taught me Spanish growing up” or “I wish I had never studied [X or Y language].” The same goes for parents and alumni at admissions and orientations events: languages are the subject they wish they had been able to take or spend more time studying.
The latest report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “The Humanities in American Life,” confirms the testimonies that most of us working in language departments have heard over the years. According to the survey report, 49 percent of respondents wish they’d had more opportunities to learn languages, more than perennial major favorites like computer science (45 percent), social sciences (40 percent) or business (39 percent). While attitudes about how much and at what age to start language education vary across the political spectrum, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed agree that it is important for children to learn languages other than English.
If only language departments received as much institutional love as those other three disciplines. In comparison, even at institutions that pride themselves on their language and off-campus programs, language departments are starved of resources in the best of times — dealing with generally lower average salaries for their faculty members, lower rates of tenured faculty and a long list of inequalities.
Being the poor relative on campus is the best-case scenario for language departments, which are usually among the first on the chopping block during every recession. Many programs — more than 650 between 2013 and 2016 alone — no longer exist. And since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, other colleges and universities have followed suit. There is no telling what will happen to language departments in financially embattled institutions when the current crisis is over.
No college or university president is going to read the report and say, “Gee, let’s care about languages and put our resources where our lofty mission statements are.” I would love to be wrong about the impact of the report, but if decades of think pieces and books about the “crisis in the humanities” and how valuable its skills are to the job market have not managed to move the needle, no amount of surveys by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences will, either.
To be sure, humanities divisions and language programs in particular have good reason to celebrate the findings in this report. It is unambiguously positive that 63 percent of Americans feel that it is important for children to learn other languages.
It is nevertheless sobering that most survey respondents do not use other languages at work, or that nearly half feel that languages are not necessary for their profession. That is true of respondents with different income levels.
In some ways, I find such responses liberating. For decades, language programs have touted the workforce benefits of learning languages in order to attract students. The Modern Language Association and ACTFL hint in their advocacy materials that college grads with advanced language proficiency go on to make more money. Maybe the AAAS survey report will help us find other ways to advocate for the languages we love without sending the message that job placement and salary are the only measure of languages’ worth.
There are bright spots in the AAAS report. According to the survey summary for foreign languages, “77 percent of Americans who often use a language other than English in the workplace also often use a language with family and friends.” In other words, language use at home and work is higher among members of existing multilingual communities. While very few respondents claim languages are relevant to their jobs, more than 80 percent report interacting with people from other cultures at work. I am willing to bet a modest amount that a good portion of those multicultural co-workers speak other languages as well.
Which brings me to my point. It is time to rethink how we advocate for language education. To be clear, languages are useful in all kinds of professions. I can’t think of any job where speaking more than one language would be a drawback. A recent ACTFL report suggests that an increasing number of employers find languages a valuable skill. But we are not fooling anybody, except perhaps ourselves, when we sell language education as a ticket to better jobs and higher salaries.
What to argue instead? For one, the value of keeping languages other than English alive in multilingual communities. We are a multilingual society with a monolingual complex, and language programs can help with that reality.
Two, the skills you learn in a language class are definitely useful when interacting with neighbors, co-workers, clients, patients and so forth from other cultures. Languages are not just lists of foreign words. In a language classroom, you learn linguistic conventions, sure, but you also develop a multilingual literacy of sorts — cultural perspective, interpretive skills or a propensity toward collaboration. Finally, with a bit of luck, languages can help students (and a few of our colleagues in more glamorous departments) move beyond monolingual ethnocentrism.
Language learning can be a meaningful part of a student’s education regardless of job placement. Just as we do not expect students to become actuaries to justify the value of learning math, we need to stop presenting outliers — the Pete Buttigiegs who land prestigious consulting jobs — as the only measure of the value of language education. Instead, we need to start thinking about multilingual literacy as a core component of living in a multilingual society.