Are foreign languages a critical component of higher education?

Those who clamor about a crisis in higher education often point to the diminished role of foreign languages in post-secondary studies.

But how important is learning a second language if you’re an American student at a college or university in the U.S.?

Before one can answer that question, it is important to frame it properly.

Unless one advocates increasing the number of credit hours required for graduation, the question is not whether foreign languages should be a part of students’ educational programs, but what elements of students’ programs should be eliminated to create the space for studying a foreign language?

Should students take fewer math, computer science, economics, philosophy, and history courses, so they can devote more hours to the study of foreign languages?

Is it more problematic that many American students graduate without learning a second language or that they often possess barely a minimal grasp of the most basic principles of economics or statistics and have, at best, a passing familiarity with the great works of literature or major strands of philosophical thought?

Another common refrain from proponents of foreign language studies is that in an increasingly flat world being able to speak multiple languages will be critical.

Yes, that is true, but only if one’s first language is something other than English.

Globalization has merely accelerated the rate at which the rest of the world has adopted English. It has made English more not less relevant. And with the increasing ubiquity of technology which enables reruns of Friends and The Sopranos and other aspects of western culture to creep into even the remotest corners of the world, it seems unlikely that the viral spread of English will abate any time soon.

Finally, one might argue that the process of learning a foreign language is inherently beneficial.

While this is almost certainly true, what is ultimately an empirical question is whether this process is more beneficial than, say, learning how to build web applications, do vector analysis, or play a musical instrument.

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