SCOTT: Maintain the foreign language requirement

The current language requirement effectively ensures proficiency and should be maintained

op-newcabell-sroehse

Many of the University's language departments are housed within New Cabell Hall. 

Sophie Roehse | Cavalier Daily

In a recent column, Viewpoint Writer Shrey Dua argues that the current foreign language requirement is overly burdensome for students and should therefore be reformed to allow students who already have high school experience with a language to opt out. However, I believe that the current language requirement is an effective way to ensure language proficiency and it should be maintained.

Dua’s first contention is that the introductory language classes are work-heavy and redundant for students that have already studied a foreign language in high school. He asserts that this is problematic because some students view the requirement as “just a box that is waiting to be checked.” 

There are two critical flaws with this argument. First, the fact that a student has already taken foreign language classes in high school is irrelevant if they are not proficient at the language. This is because foreign language acquisition requires not just exposure but proficiency to be used effectively. This argument would be akin to saying that I shouldn’t have to take ENWR 1510 because I took English in high school, regardless of whether I can actually write well. In addition, the placement tests function as safeguards against proficient students taking redundant coursework.

The second error in this argument is that it implies that just because students aren’t excited about taking it, it shouldn’t be a requirement. On the contrary, the University has an obligation to ensure that its students are prepared for the world they will enter upon graduation. It is for that reason we have requirements in the first place, regardless of whether — and precisely because — some students do not want to take classes that are important to achieving that goal. 

Dua then claims that the way to place out of the requirement unfairly penalizes students who study certain languages. He states this because popular languages have more options, including SAT II or Advanced Placement tests and online placement, which he worries may lead to cheating. Furthermore, he explains, different language departments have different standards for what scores fulfill the requirement.

Although these points are factually true, they don’t demonstrate that we should weaken the requirement. For example, if cheating is a worry with the online placement test, the solution should be to make everyone take the test in person, not to lower standards. Moreover, even though it’s true that there aren’t SAT II tests for every language, any student can take a placement test for a language taught at the University, and if you know a language that is not taught at the University, you can place out by taking the NYU 16-point Foreign Language Proficiency Test. Therefore, I don’t believe this is an adequate reason to weaken the requirement. On the last point, unless there is reason to believe that one AP exam is easier than another given the same level of proficiency of the test taker, I agree with Dua that there should be a standard score that fulfills the requirement.

Next, Dua brings up the requirement’s effect on transfer students. He says that some transfer students will have to take classes in a subject that they haven’t studied in a long time. He further argues that this is especially bad for students who want to enter McIntire School of Commerce which requires all incoming students to have already completed the requirement.

The problem raised about transfers not having studied a language in a while is just a reworking of the same argument about students who already have experience in high school. The answer to that argument is that proficiency is — and should be — valued over experience. I believe that the second problem is a serious problem, but one that must be addressed by McIntire rather than the general education requirements.

Finally, Dua concludes that the best way to resolve the issues he sees in the system is to adopt the language requirement used by Virginia Tech. In their system, the language requirement is met by taking two or three years of a language in high school, depending on your major. 

Adopting this system would undermine the entire purpose of the requirement. Many students would be able to forgo taking any language classes simply because they took a couple in high school. The problem with this is that many high school language courses lack the rigor that is required to acquire proficiency. Thus, many students would fulfill the requirement without knowing more than a few simple phrases. Embracing this system would fail to give students the proficiency that is ensured by the “overly burdensome” nature of the current system.

Ultimately, being proficient in a foreign language is vital in today’s world and Dua notes as much: “In a more interconnected world, it’s an invaluable perspective to have and to nurture.” Our current system assures that University students will graduate with that level of proficiency. Meanwhile, the alternative given would do nothing of the sort. Furthermore, the criticisms of the current system fail to demonstrate why we must abandon our system. As a result, I believe we should maintain the current foreign language requirement.

Gavin Scott is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.scott@cavalierdaily.com.

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