Tongue-tied: Why language courses should really mean something

By Brandon Desiderio
January 20, 2012

Like every other Cabrini student, I have to take language courses in order to graduate; and like everyone else, my choices are limited in scope to the three Romance languages offered on-campus: Spanish, Italian and French. Keep in mind the limited nature of French courses and as a student you quickly realize how very few options you really have.
Especially if, like me, you’ve already taken a few years of a language.
Having taken five formal years of French in high school, I figured that I would be able to take a 200-level course and be done with the language requirement after one semester. Unfortunately, I’m one of very few that would be interested in such a course, let alone able to enroll in one as 200-level French courses are, for the most part, a thing of the past – why take a language that’s so under-spoken throughout the world, after all?
While languages like French and Italian are popular for their beauty, the fluent speakers of each, whether native or not, cover very insignificant numbers of the global population. For instance, French accounts for approximately 275 million out of the seven billion people on the planet; similarly, Italian accounts for almost four times less than that, with a mere 80 million speakers.
To put those numbers into an even greater perspective, throughout the world there are about 1.5 billion people speaking English, 1.3 billion speaking Chinese, and 500 million speaking Spanish. If anything, these numbers are an indicator of what language courses should be offered by default.
Of course, doing away with the less universal languages would have many anthropologists and linguists up in arms, arguing the intrinsic importance of every living and dead language in our global culture.
And yet, by not providing an ever-increasingly important and universal language such as Chinese as one of the core languages on a college campus, both faculty and staff are unfairly limited on their quests to be citizens of the world.
In addition to English, Chinese and Spanish,  the Arabic and Hindi-Urdu languages are perhaps the fourth and fifth most commonly spoken languages around the world, each totaling over 450 million speakers of their own.
Faced with these numbers, it’s becoming easier to see why the demand for French courses is dwindling, as is, similarly, the demand for Italian courses; a friend of mine was enrolled in a 200-level Italian course for this current semester, but the course ultimately ended up being canceled due to lack of interest.
Could this lack of interest be driven by the current economy? As word spreads about companies’ expansions overseas and the rising appeal of bilingualism in prospective employees – particularly those who speak Spanish, for instance, or Chinese or Arabic – it’s possible that college students are making a smarter move toward advancing their own professional appeal to future employers, thus ditching the cedillas and carets of French for something more marketable.
Perhaps the aesthetic appreciation of a language is no longer enough to fuel French or Italian courses; perhaps it’s time to recognize the inevitable and secure for ourselves a future somewhere, whether that “somewhere” be on native soil or foreign soil.
My own struggle to complete my language requirement as effortlessly as possible has made me realize just how important such a choice really is. Whichever language I end up dabbling in can adversely affect my career options and altogether my future.
I’ve started teaching myself Russian as a bit of a side project, a language which itself has approximately 300 million fluent speakers and is, in addition to Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and English, one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
But the bigger issue lies within the reaches of higher education, especially here at Cabrini, a school so dedicated to furthering its student body’s understanding of the world around them. Should the less-popular languages taught here on campus be axed in order to provide room for languages that are overall more worth knowing in today’s world?
A question like this is hard to digest, but at the end of the day the answer seems pretty obvious, albeit difficult to implement.
Likely the most important aspect of this, however, is what the student body thinks.
Spanish being the most commonly taken language at Cabrini, it seems to be a harbinger of our cultural change toward utilizing language as a way to continue moving forward as not only an institution, but a culture and nation as well.
But the decision again lies in the student body’s hands: Do you, like me, find yourself feeling limited by your language choices here? And more importantly, what alternatives do you suggest in replacement – or perhaps in supplement of – our current options?
A language course should amount to more than just checking off a graduation requirement; with the knowledge of a foreign vocabulary and culture comes exposure to opportunities that extend even beyond the reaches of higher education.
There’s a whole world waiting for you out there, if only you’ll take more than a semester or two worth of time to fully understand it.

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Brandon Desiderio

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