Head to Head: Learning languages is great for post-grad

The whole point of college is to learn things you didn’t know before — to become literate in a new subject area. 

This means different things for different people. Some students put on blinders and delve exclusively into one focus area for four years. Others use the opportunity to develop understanding of many different areas before receiving their diploma.

 Through either approach, the ideal outcome is that a student will graduate with the ability to hold an intelligent and meaningful conversation about their subject with someone else. That conversation is even more ideal when it’s with someone with whom you may never have been able to communicate without receiving your degree. 

The most surefire way to expand your ability to communicate with others is to supplement your major with foreign language study. The UA recognizes this, requiring all undergraduates to acquire two to four semesters, depending on your degree program, of second language skill level before graduating. 

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For such a practical requirement, a lot of students complain about this more than they should. While the benefits of language learning are intensely researched and pretty much irrefutable, many still think being required to study a language during college is little more than an inconvenience. 

The biggest criticism of the foreign language requirement is that it’s not applicable for some students. The time spent studying a foreign language would be better used taking classes directly pertaining to a student’s major. 

This is absurd. There isn’t a single area of study that wouldn’t be improved with knowledge of a foreign language. Further, there isn’t a single foreign language that could detract from your understanding of your major. 

Whether you are studying literature, engineering, studio art or theater, there are millions of people — speaking all different languages — who study and have expertise in the same areas you hope to. To decide the languages they speak are “irrelevant” to your major is to disregard all the contributions people with different backgrounds make to your field. 

Others note that taking just one or two years of a language is a waste of time — that a student can rarely learn enough of a language in that period to make their studies worthwhile. There is some truth to this. If global communication is your goal, even two years isn’t enough time to develop practical conversational skills — especially ones you’ll remember after graduation. 

This doesn’t mean the university should scrap the language requirements for non-language majors; if anything, the requirements should be more extensive. If students don’t think the minimum requirements are enough to justify developing language skills, then they should do more to make their time worthwhile. 

So many students place a huge weight on efficiency, marketability and employability. They should realize that having proficiency in a second language is one of the best ways to directly and indirectly develop these qualities. Language learning develops — in addition to obvious communication skills — listening, analytic and decision-making abilities. According to Auburn University, “Graduates often cite foreign language courses as some of the most valuable courses in college.” 

College is the perfect time to study a language. If you’re already going to set aside four years of your life to live in an educational vacuum, you might as well do it right. You’re already paying for four years of tuition, and that money might as well go toward developing skillsets that are undeniably valuable. 

If you want to be sharper, more cultured and more employable, study a foreign language.

 If you don’t, that’s fine. Just complete the graduation requirement by studying a language anyway and complain about it the whole time. Or not. 


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