It’s Called Being a Human, if That’s Enough: In Defense of the Language Requirement

Besides a seemingly universal criticism of the West in Time requirement as “Old White Men in Time,” the most common complaint I have heard since coming to Colorado College has been a dread of the two-block language requirement. These conversations are not limited to: “I took AP Spanish in high school,” “I already speak another language,” “I’m a science major,” or rather frequently, “You can’t learn a language on the Block Plan.” This is massively problematic.

You’ll always have that one person you meet who you soon discover speaks two, three, or even five foreign languages, as you slip into some feeling of inadequacy, vouching for yourself, “I’m just not a language person.” Although I do believe people with multiple languages also have access to more words, grammatical structures, and concepts, there is not a binary between people who speak other languages and those who don’t. Let’s call this category “knowing of a language,” and let’s define it as spending time in a classroom, region, and/or social setting where you simply become aware of a language’s general structure and how people use it.

I think it’s safe to say that a large portion of CC students enter their first year knowing of a language. Then, general education requirements ensure that everyone—with few exceptions—graduate knowing at least one.

Granted, it is likely true that retention is rather impossible with a seven-week immersion; but frankly, that’s not the point. No one’s asking you to become fluent post-French 101. Maybe your two blocks of German won’t make you a better biologist. They probably won’t. Two blocks are miniscule in the grand scheme of your education, and this school is non-vocational, so you are more than your productivity. It’s called being a human, if that’s enough.

By the time you graduate college, you should know that the world’s languages and cultures can’t be mediated through an online robot. If you struggle to explain to a friend that even though you have a free weekend, you aren’t quite ready to start that project you’ve been talking about for weeks, there’s a word for that in Icelandic. Suddenly, everything becomes a lot simpler; the word is tíma.

Tell me the last time you measured water by the amount you can hold in one hand. The unit, in Arabic, is gurfa. We all, absolutely, know a warmduscher. Know the slightest amount of German, and we can call that one “a warm shower-er,” but more so, someone who only takes warm showers, therefore backs away from anything slightly uncomfortable or challenging. You can know a warmduscher without knowing the word for it, and maybe knowing that there is a name for this thought gives it a lot more sense.

Take the preterite and imperfect. Despite the fact that introductory language classes can reduce them to verb charts, there’s a huge difference between the way speakers of English and Romance languages speak about the past. Being able to distinguish simply through a verb ending—whether something occurred once, multiple times, or if there’s an assumption that it will continue—is crucial to communicate and clarify events.

Or take the subjunctive: an entire mood of verbs expressing indefinites, possibilities, wishes that define themselves as outside of the immediate, tangible world. The distinction between things that do exist and are currently happening, in contrast with things that are just uncertain ideas or possibilities that may never come into fruition, gives a language greater specificity than English’s grammatical structure. We can use it, but we just don’t have easy access to it. Yet just knowing that it exists gives us more freedom to try out different ways to articulate the way you describe things.

Just having knowledge of the subjunctive can cause you to question what it is about English’s rather definitive nature that focuses on the tangible present. Recognizing and exploring the fact that other languages have words for concepts that our language cannot give us are the first steps to developing greater empathy for all the people and ideas that exist outside of our spheres. Knowing that your way of doing things might not be the best way is a fundamental aspect of getting a liberal arts degree.

There’s no way language departments believe fluency is the goal for every student, but to understand another language is so much more than a translation machine or a pocket dictionary. Understanding the dynamics of the way other people express their worlds is equally as valuable as your major.

Maybe two blocks won’t get you hired, but they’ll sure as hell help you relate. Maybe you’ll finally find that one word you were looking for, or maybe you just won’t fail the class. But you’re a part of a much bigger system than your transcript, your degree, this campus. You’ll need to be a human somewhere.

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