PROFESSOR OF FRENCH
I am writing out of concern that a statement in your front page article of April 17 [“Significant changes coming to Gen Ed requirements”] could spread fake news regarding the value of learning a second language well. The article quotes Dean Feingold as saying, “We’re getting a lot of people who say that two years of language isn’t really appreciably better than one year, in terms of actually making yourself understood and being useful, and there are other things that would be more useful and more interesting.” When asked by language faculty for clarification, Dean Feingold responded that the statement had been misattributed to her. But I feel it important to share with the wider campus community, and especially with student readers, that the statement is patently incorrect. Who could argue that a second year of study in any discipline does not make an appreciable difference in competence?
Gen Ed at Willamette has been revised in a spirit of flexibility, to provide students with greater freedom, and that is a goal that we can all agree with. But as a language professional, it is incumbent upon me to set the record straight: a second year of language study leads to markedly greater proficiency, and that proficiency is in a student’s personal, professional and economic interest. Knowledge of a second language is one of the core elements of global competence, a mark of a well-educated person, and it also gives a professional advantage to any liberal arts major.
Recently, a bipartisan group of U. S. Congresspeople, recognizing the potential of language learning to influence our country’s future, asked the American Academy of Arts and Sciences created the Commission on Language Learning created the Commission on Language Learning to explore what actions our country could take to ensure excellence in all languages. That commission determined that world languages are intrinsic to the national and global economy. The private sector also recognizes this: a recent survey of U.S. businesses by JNCL-NCLIS and the Michigan State University Collegiate Employment Research Institute revealed that over half of U.S. businesses track their employees’ foreign language skills, 35 percent give an advantage to multilingual applicants and one in six has lost business prospects due to a lack of employees with language skills.
In addition, studying a second language gives a student lifetime cognitive benefits different from those gained through any other discipline, including greater cognitive flexibility, improved problem solving and stronger executive function in the brain. See for example Marian & Shook, “Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual and Bhattacharjee, “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter,” among many others. Of course, the personal and human benefits derived from world language study are impossible to quantify. I commend The Collegian for the accurate article on page two of the same issue, which highlighted the success of language students who were awarded prestigious Fulbright Fellowships. That is certainly a tangible measure of success and value of language learning to those Willamette students.
I hope that the dean will speak with greater clarity and that The Collegian will report in like manner about the increasing importance of language learning in our increasingly fractured world. Not unto ourselves are we born…
The Collegian has recorded evidence of Dean Feingold saying the sentence in question.
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