Colby’s woefully misguided language requirement has to go

Like many small liberal arts schools, Colby has made a commitment to teaching students how to learn by exposing them to a vast range of subjects. As Colby students, we are required to take courses in art, history, literature, quantitative reasoning, social science, a first-year writing seminar, two diversity requirements, two natural science courses plus a lab and three semesters of a foreign language.

During my nearly three years at Colby, I have become a more rounded student and found interests I never would have known about if I hadn’t been forced to fulfill these distribution requirements. I still critique people’s arguments by using logical fallacies I learned during my freshman year logic class. I can successfully identify the different faults that surround my home in the Bay Area thanks to my geology class. I’ve learned about the history of the Korean peninsula, written three one-act plays, and studied the social norms of heroin addicts in South San Francisco. In this way, the distribution requirements have done their jobs by broadening my understanding of the world and myself.

Now that I am one course away from fulfilling my distribution requirements, I have time to reflect, and while I may not believe that we should do away with them as Hamilton College has, I feel it is time we updated the requirements. More specifically, we should get rid of, or at least minimize, Colby’s language requirement.

This may seem illogical in the age that we live in. After all, the world is more globalized now than it has ever been before. Knowing a foreign language is helpful in creating lasting personal and professional relationships with people around the world. Learning a second language has been shown to increase brain health, delay the outset of degenerative diseases, improve your native language skills and make you more attractive to prospective employers.

Likewise, for a school of its size, Colby seems to have a fantastic language program. If you so choose, you can learn Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, German, French, Mandarin, Japanese, Greek, Italian or Russian.  While I decided to fulfill my requirement with plain old Spanish, I’ve been extremely impressed with the many Spanish professors who have helped guide me through the subject. In fact, I would say I’ve had more helpful language professors than professors in any other field I’ve had at Colby. I want to clarify that I do not think we should get rid of the requirement because it lacks substance or competent professors. In the spirit of breaking up: Spanish, it’s not you. It’s me.

I started learning Spanish when I was nine years old. Every morning before school at 6 a.m., I would walk to the community church and be taught basic Spanish words while I tried to keep my eyes open. I took this class for four years, avoided Spanish through middle school before returning to it in high school. I took two and a half semesters of it before travelling to Australia, which, unsurprisingly, does not teach Spanish.  At the end of this semester, I will have taken eight and half years of Spanish.

And you know what? I’m still awful at it. The two phrases I use most in Spanish are “Cómo se dice” (how does one say) or “Que significa” (what does it mean). After eight years, I still mess up basic verbs, use an accent that resembles an overeager American ordering Taco Bell, and have a vocabulary that would cause Spanish children to wince at my total incompetence. But this is not a new revelation. I’ve disliked Spanish since elementary school, despised it since high school, and have become woefully ambivalent to it since then. But why does my own animosity toward this language demonstrate why Colby should get rid of the requirement? I’ll tell you.

Having a student dislike a language means two things. First, they’re going to require more resources, as they’ll be less likely to work toward something that has diminishing returns. I have a Spanish tutor and occasionally visit my professors. I take up a seat in the coveted 10:00 a.m. Spanish 127 class, compared to the 8 or 9 a.m. classes. By occupying these resources, I’m taking away opportunities for other students who may like the course and utilize the course later on in their lives.

This leads me to my second point. After an uninterested student finishes their language requirement, the requirement is unlikely to help them. Uninterested students are unlikely to advertise their language “abilities” if they are applying for jobs, because they could end up working with the language on a regular basis. Likewise, if a company were to hire the student expecting that the language would help them, they’re likely to be disappointed when they see the student’s true ability. I know my future employer would be.

Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to get rid of the language requirement. First of all, why are we required to take so many semesters? Without taking a language placement, a Colby student is guaranteed three semesters of language, nearly two-fifths of their time at Colby. Compound that with all the other requirements, excluding JanPlan, and roughly one-third of our time at Colby has been spoken for before we arrive. As a government major focusing on Asia with a creative writing minor, learning Spanish has little viability for me when it has nothing to do with my career interests. Some of you are asking yourselves why I didn’t go for Japanese or Chinese if I’m so interested in Asia, but I’ll get to that in a second. My point is that it would be much more helpful for my job prospects (and personal curiosity) if I had the opportunity to take more classes that are related to my major.

Now, regarding your question above. Japan and China are not only interesting countries, but also two of the most powerful players in Asia today. Learning a language in either would help you immensely if you were interested in the region. However, the country I am most interested in is Indonesia. When I first started gearing up for my language requirement, I asked if I could independently study Bahasa, Indonesia’s official language. While there was a possibility to do so, long story short, it would have been nearly impossible unless I spent time abroad, which I did not plan to do for various reasons. Also, I’m kind of lazy.

Ultimately, while Colby has a wide selection of languages and many capable professors, these departments should not have to spend their time teaching apathetic students while students should not be forced to take a class that only distracts them from their goals. While perhaps the same argument could be made for Colby’s other distribution requirements, I believe that many of the other requirements directly affect our lives. Everyone should know how to write a critical essay or analyze data or be creative. These are all things you’re going to use later in life. For many, language will not be one of those things.

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