Useless: Fordham’s Foreign Language Requirement

By Canton Winer

If Fordham’s foreign language requirement worked, I would be able to write this column in Spanish.

As it is, I can barely ask where the bathroom is in Spanish, much less write a coherent sentence.

I completely understand the motivation behind a language requirement—and I’m infinitely jealous of my polyglot friends—but let’s be real: Fordham’s foreign language requirement is a waste of time.

The average Fordham student spends around 150 hours in foreign language classes before being dubbed “proficient.” That’s 150 hours that could have been spent doing something much more productive.

The opportunity cost of the language requirement is enormous. If you take all four language courses (assuming a typical course-load of five courses per semester your freshman and sophomore years and four courses per semester your junior and senior years,) then fully 11 percent of your course-load was spent on foreign language classes.

Spending 11 percent of courses on material that most students will never master and few will continue to use simply doesn’t make sense. Those courses could instead be spent on another philosophy, English, cultural studies or service-learning class. Departments could begin asking students to take one more class to fulfill their major requirements, making students far more adept in their academic home fields.

Furthermore, the foreign language requirement degrades the quality of the foreign language departments by forcing them to divert the vast majority of their resources to students fulfilling Fordham’s core instead of to students who actually choose to major or minor in a foreign language.

Students majoring or minoring in French or Spanish, for example, are extremely limited in the advanced-level courses they can take, since the resources of the department are swallowed up by Fordham’s language requirement.

In fairness, I understand the argument that learning a second language expands the way you think. But, if you aren’t actually learning a second language, then your mind isn’t expanding. I loved my Spanish professors, but Spanish class was the most mind-numbing—not mind-expanding—two and a half hours of my week every semester of my freshman and sophomore years.

At around eight years old, children’s language acquisition skills are significantly degraded. By the time most people are 16, they will never be able to fully acquire a second language. The human mind is not suited to learning a new language after 18 years of wear and tear.

College is simply too late to begin learning a new language—and the classroom is hardly the best place for language acquisition anyway. Let’s stop kidding ourselves and cut the foreign language requirement.

There are 4 comments

  1. rossgarlick

    I’m sorry, Canton, but I whole-heartedly disagree. First of all, in response to your comment with the Freakonomics link, The Economist wrote a blog post which showed some of the flawed thinking behind Dubner’s rationale:

    There is lots more I could say about this, but I can imagine you are aware of a lot of the intangible benefits of studying a language. Your article just gives the impression that you are bitter about being forced to take something you don’t particularly enjoy.

  2. Jonathan Rooke

    While I agree that the language requirement needs some adjustment, calling for it to be cut outright is ridiculous. Exposure to a foreign language (yes maybe not 150 hours, or at least not the 150 hours as they are used now) is incredibly important, and a useful part of forming a foundation of global citizenship, broadening the horizon of the individual mind, and ensuring a more fully-formed education. The structure of the language requirement may be inadequate, but it is not useless. The goal of the requirement is not to make students masters of whichever language, the same way that a text and contexts class wont make students master close readers, science for non-major classes wont make students master scientists, and philosophical ethics wont make students masters of morality. It’s true the language departments are understaffed, but the solution to having too few classes available is to increase the amount of professors.

    It’s not perfect, but if we’re going to call for action in regards to foreign language at Fordham, let’s call for reform and not cuts. Simply put, an elite education in the 21st century is not complete without at least some language instruction.

    1. Canton Winer

      Your points are well taken, and I appreciate having as many voices as possible in this debate. I think we can agree that few people would argue Fordham’s language requirement isn’t in need of some amends. Mostly, I’m just hoping that this conversation serves to stir the pot.

      Freakonomics ran an interesting piece on the benefits/disadvantages of learning a foreign language that you might find interesting. Here’s the link:


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s