The University of Minnesota requires all College of Liberal Arts students pursuing a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Individualized Study to complete coursework equivalent to two years of a foreign language. The University offers 25 different languages that fulfill the language requirement, including American Sign Language, Italian and even Ojibwe.
The CLA states that “foreign languages are a foundation of liberal education” and defines having a liberal education as becoming globally aware, culturally sensitive, an informed world citizen, among others. Citizens in most other countries know more than one language, compared to only 9 percent of U.S. citizens that can speak their native language and another language fluently. And this is why the University includes second languages as CLA course requirements — to make you think more globally.
Undoubtedly, learning another language provides a lot of advantages. Learning another language sets you apart in the job market, as international relations are expanding and employers seek out people who are able to communicate internationally.
Unfortunately, the University’s language department courses are often 5 credit courses that provide a hefty coursework load. While it's expected students make time for their classes and homework, many students may struggle to retain enough of the language that would make it beneficial for them to use in the workplace. If the University wants us to be well-rounded students who think globally, we have to realistically look at how our language classes are framed and the effect they have on students.
If students are taking a 5-credit, non-optional language course along with the many other liberal education and major course requirements, a language course may not be a top priority. For most students, getting a good grade in their language course is about retaining enough information to pass the class and not enough to fluently speak the language or appreciate what the culture has to offer.
The University should incorporate more historical and cultural aspects in their language requirements. Many language classes do include cultural education, but are designed in a way to emphasize learning the language more than understanding the people and their experiences. Instead of students running through the motions in class to maintain their GPAs, they should be presented with more culturally-based coursework that challenges how we think globally and understand people who are different from ourselves.
Having a language requirement is an important part of the CLA, but it may be time to re-evaluate the coursework required and taught by language department. We need to reduce our overall language credit requirements, while adding course requirements that find more diverse ways for students to get involved with the languages’ culture. Language department faculty could plan field trips to cultural centers and festivals, outings to try authentic cuisine or listening sessions with individuals from their native country. Our language requirement should be more than learning conjugations and vocabulary. Our language requirement should encourage us to think deeper about other cultures and develop an appreciation that will last a lifetime — not just four semesters.