Each Wednesday, Taylor Felts and Jacob Broyles will tackle two sides of a contentious issue facing the Transy community. This week, we ask the question “Does Transy’s current foreign language program requirement do enough to encourage practical fluency in students who don’t already speak a second language?” Due to some unusual circumstances this week— both Mr. Broyles and Ms. Felts largely agree— an opposing opinion will be provided by Opinion Editor Tristan Reynolds.
Read Jacob Broyles and Taylor Felts arguing against here and here.
We live in a world of 7 billion people. The number of people within that population who speak English is only 1.5 billion. A little simple arithmetic tells us that the vast majority of the world does not, in fact, speak English at all. It follows that, if you want to speak to one of the 5.5 billion people who don’t speak English, you have to learn another language to do it. (While it’s true that you’d have to learn half a dozen languages to talk to most of the world—you can talk to just about anyone if you speak English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and Hindi—picking up any one of those will significantly increase your ability to speak to people around the globe). Given these realities, any program of higher education should include for its students a real bilingual fluency and literacy requirement as a matter of course.
Transy’s current foreign language requirements extend to 2—3 semesters of basic foreign language instruction. While this is undoubtedly enough for anyone to learn how to ask someone’s name and profession, and how to get to the American Embassy, it seems unlikely that 2.5 hours a week for 3 semesters, (with breaks in between each semester) will allow most students to develop real fluency and literacy. In short, Transy has an obligation to its students to give them a real chance to develop fluency in a second language, and Transy is currently not doing so.
Let’s look at some numbers. We’ll use Spanish as an example language, because Spanish is classed by the US Foreign Service Institute as a relatively easy language for Americans to learn; basic fluency is classed as being a 2 on a 5-point mastery scale defined by the Foreign Service Institute. The FSI estimates that an English speaker can learn basic Spanish in only 480 total hours of study. That’s only 48 days!— if you study intently for 10 hours a day. Study for 5 hours a day and you double the time required to 96 days. If you study for only 5 hours a week—in other words, if you spend an equal amount of time studying outside of your Transy classes as you do in the classes themselves—then it would take 96 weeks to learn Spanish. Let’s assume, however, that you are a particularly devoted and motivated student: triple the time you spend outside of class studying, for a total of 10 hours a week (2.5 hours in class and 7.5 hours outside of class), and you will spend 48 weeks studying to achieve fluency. A semester lasts 14 weeks; three semesters is 42 weeks. Even with the generous assumptions made here, the motivated student still needs to spend an additional 6 weeks outside of Transy classes—at the assumed rate of 10 hours of study a week—to get to the 48 weeks required to achieve basic Spanish fluency. And remember, Spanish is a relatively straightforward language; it shares an alphabet and a Latin root with English. A language like Mandarin or Arabic will take significantly longer.
Of course, all this figuring doesn’t take into account the individual’s work ethic—one student could study much more intently than another—or their natural ear for languages. There is certainly plenty of individual variation. But simply by looking at a few numbers, we can see that Transy’s current requirements simply do not give most students the time opportunity to learn a second language.
Fortunately, a significant improvement in Transy’s curriculum appears to be relatively simple. If Transy were to add another semester of required foreign language classes, the number of weeks a student would be in a foreign language class would jump to 56—well over the 48 weeks we assumed above. This fix would allow the motivated student who spends 10 hours a week studying their language a real shot a basic fluency. Is this fix perfect? No; it assumes a motivated student and a relatively easy language. There are also questions of cost to consider—to both the student and the university. However, increasing Transy’s foreign language requirement to 4 semesters would offer a significant improvement to the motivated student’s fluency over the long term. Doing so will help both students to achieve basic fluency in a second language, and allow Transy to better fulfill its mission to develop educated, whole citizens of the world.