Learning and Languages

Setting Aside Bureaucratic Requirements

W. Russell Neuman explores the impact of undergraduate foreign language requirements and finds that they seem to have little to no meaningful effect on students’ proficiency.

May 18, 2017
 
iStock/Warchi
 

The concern over rising tuition has led people to increasingly evaluate higher education in terms of a return on investment. And that, in turn, has been a source of anxiety among faculty members, especially those in the humanities.

Could it be that tackling computer science or organic chemistry has a higher return in postgraduate salary trajectories than a major in French literature? Further, why is it that so many colleges and universities require that their undergraduates demonstrate some level of proficiency in a foreign language? This persisting language requirement for graduation piqued my curiosity. Typically any language qualifies for the requirement: Urdu, Navajo, Spanish and, in increasing popularity, American Sign Language.

Most colleges and universities are clear about the underlying rationale for their language requirement. Take for example, Columbia University’s undergraduate requirement.

The foreign language requirement forms part of Columbia College’s mission to prepare students to be tomorrow’s conscientious and informed citizens. Knowledge of another’s language and literature is the most important way to begin to know a country and people. The study of a foreign language:

  • Sensitizes students to world cultures, simultaneously making them aware of their own culture within that context;
  • Introduces students to the differences in structure, grammar and syntax that distinguish two languages, and to the intimate links between language and cultural meaning; and
  • Contributes to the development of students’ critical, analytical and writing skills.

Yet the question remains whether the requisite student investment in foreign language proficiency matches up meaningfully with the intended intellectual outcomes.

Most language requirements use the phrase “language proficiency” as the requirement’s goal and assess it by a language exam or passing grades in several semesters of beginning or intermediate college-level language instruction. At those levels, language classes and exams by their nature focus on vocabulary, conjugation and syntax. So it is unlikely that the cultural issues associated with the requirement are often meaningfully addressed. They could be, but that would require two or perhaps three or four times the commitment in classroom hours. That is simply not practical, given all the other important breadth and skill requirements of most undergraduate programs.

And, as far, as I can tell the question of whether elementary foreign language learning enhances students’ critical, analytical and writing skills in their native language has not been seriously researched. I contacted a number of academic foreign language scholars and staff members at a variety of associations that promote foreign language learning in postsecondary education to ask about research. As best as I can determine from the responses I have received, other than a few fragmentary statistics, the question about language learning outcomes remains largely unanswered.

We do have some estimates on language proficiency. By one estimate, less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a United States classroom. Another study estimated the proportion at a little less than 2 percent. A third calculated 10 percent. These are difficult estimates to make because they are based on gross numbers of language students and separate surveys of adults reporting on their language skills.

Yet they may be realistic, given the views of some in the language community. Eckhard Kuhn-Osius, a professor of German language at Hunter College in New York and chair of the American Association of Teachers of German Testing Commission, asserted in a study in 2001 that “practically no student who fulfills a language requirement of two, three or four semesters will have acquired professionally relevant language proficiency.”

Given the lack of hard evidence in the scholarly literature about language-proficiency outcomes, I decided to undertake my own independent survey of American four-year college graduates through Survata, which conducts online survey studies. We know that 84 percent of American adults have some form of online access, and the number is probably well above 90 percent for college graduates, so an online study seemed appropriate. (Traditional telephone surveys have response rates under 10 percent, so the alternatives to an online survey may actually be more problematic.) Survata uses a variety of techniques to provide a census-representative sample with a sampling accuracy of plus or minus about 3 percent for samples of 1,000 respondents. (In this case 1,003.)

The Study’s Results

Here’s what the survey revealed. Of this sample of American college graduates, 61 percent reported that, when they enrolled, their institution had no language requirement, and 39 percent reported that a foreign language requirement was in place. Students at institutions where it was required took an average of three semesters of a foreign language, while those at institutions that didn’t require it took a little more than one semester. Clearly, requirements make a big difference in exposure to foreign language instruction, but there appears to be significant language study in nonrequirement institutions, which may be taken to be a good sign. Exactly half of the respondents who have graduated recently reported their institution had a foreign language requirement. Older respondents, however, were more likely to report that they had no language requirement when they were students, which may mean there were fewer requirements decades ago or that it was more difficult to recall the rules in force back then.

We turn to a key question: What is the relationship between adult foreign language proficiency and the number of semesters of study, and how does the existence of a language requirement interact with these dynamics? First, let’s take a look at the distribution of self-reported levels of current adult fluency among those who studied foreign language in college.

Bar chart showing five categories of fluency. 1: Able to use the language fluently and accurately (11% of respondents). 2. Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements (13%). 3. Able to use questions and answers for simple topics and basic needs (29%). 4. Understanding limited to occasional isolated words and phrases (39%). 5. Can't remember a single word (8%).If we consider the top two categories as a reasonable level of language proficiency, we find that, among those in this sample of college graduates who studied foreign language in college, a little less than a quarter (24 percent) are proficient. But if we exclude those who were language majors or who reported that the language was spoken extensively in their home or community, the level of proficiency drops by half to 12 percent. Interestingly, the number of those who said they were proficient but didn’t major in a language or speak it at home was 15 percent in institutions without language requirements and 10 percent in institutions with language requirements.

Thus, statistically speaking, the foreign language requirement appears to have no meaningful effect on the language proficiency of graduates from those institutions. All of the variation in proficiency is explained by students opting for majoring or minoring in language study and/or exposure to the language in their home or community. Males had modestly higher levels of language proficiency than females, older respondents modestly lower than younger ones.

Another key question is the impact of language study in college on cultural sensitivity and global awareness. I had limited opportunity to assess those dimensions in our short survey, so I asked simply if the respondents were inclined to seek out or to avoid foreign cultures and languages. The percentage reporting from institutions requiring language instruction that they seek out foreign cultures and languages was 23 percent and from nonrequirement institutions it was 20 percent -- a difference small enough that it cannot be distinguished from sampling error.

It seemed possible that a language requirement could have a boomerang effect -- turning some students away from further language learning. That turned out not to be the case at all. Fully 45 percent of the respondents volunteered that they enjoyed language learning (the same percentage for requirement and nonrequirement institutions) and only 9 percent noted that they disliked language learning. And, again, we found no significant difference for requirement and nonrequirement institutions.

Such complex phenomena as critical thinking skills and cultural or linguistic sensitivity are not easily assessed. Part of the challenge is a lack of clarity about what educators mean when they use such terms. The increased attention to learning outcomes and systematic assessment in higher education may bring some greater definition to these iconic and potentially overused educational catchphrases.

What conclusions might we draw from this preliminary analysis? It appears that the language requirement does not generate a boomerang effect, turning students off or leading them to avoid foreign cultures languages and literatures. But it appears, as well, perhaps as should be expected, that three or four semesters of language instruction, required or otherwise, does not make much of a difference in adult linguistic capacities.

My view is that the current tradition of language-proficiency requirements has it backward. It requires the study of foreign language vocabulary and grammar under a potentially false pretense that exposure of a few semesters leads to cultural and linguistic sensitivity and critical thinking skills.

My proposal is that colleges and universities should start with courses focusing on globalization and cultural diversity, reinforced by study abroad opportunities, which will generate a natural demand for foreign language instruction as part of a more globally oriented curriculum. We should set aside bureaucratic requirements and instead focus our attention on motivating students’ intellectual pursuits with a curriculum that takes outcomes and assessment seriously.

Bio

W. Russell Neuman is a professor of media technology at New York University’s Steinhardt School and author of The Digital Difference: Media Technology and the Theory of Communication Effects (Harvard University Press, 2016).

Read more by

Back to Top