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Internationalize Queens College? Absolutely. Let’s Start with Foreign Language Requirements

It was with a curious mix of pleasure and surprise that I received today an email—which most of you will also undoubtedly have received—from Queens College President Matos informing me that

“[…] Queens College is currently developing a strategy for comprehensive internationalization […and] reviewing current internationalization activities to clarify institutional goals, and developing a strategic action plan based on an analysis of current activities on campus.”

Pleasure and surprise indeed, because the language of the email led me to hope that what was being signaled here was, among other reforms, something of a reversal of the Pathways mandates which since fall 2013 required that

“[…] all new students and almost all transfer students must take one class on Language as part of their College Core (Option) Requirements—one component of the larger set of General Education Requirements at Queens.”

(http://www.qc.cuny.edu/Academics/Degrees/DAH/pages/language-requirement.aspx)

The website listing QC graduation requirements goes on to stipulate that the “list [of eligible classes] includes eligible foreign language classes, as well as classes taught in English.” (Italics mine).

Thus, since Pathways, not only has the foreign language requirement been reduced to one single semester (hardly enough time to get any significant exposure or beneficial effect therefrom) but—in theory—a QC student could graduate without so much as ever having been exposed to another country’s language, its grammar, syntax, world view (these elements are all interrelated) or its culture, art or history.  I intend no disrespect to the above-mentioned courses taught in English, as I know them to be academically challenging and intellectually stimulating, but they in no way provide an equivalent learning experience: There are countless scientific studies (with fMRI scans as evidence) that “Foreign language acquisition leads to [beneficial] brain structure changes in young adults.” (Mårtensson)

I have been conducting a personal poll of my students, asking them what they thought of the lowering of the foreign language requirement.  To my great sadness, they almost unanimously said they would not mind if the foreign language were abolished altogether.  I cannot fault them for having this opinion: I do not think anyone has ever told them of the value and virtue of knowing a foreign language, either as a practical matter (the future economic hegemony of the Anglo-American-speaking countries is no longer an undisputed truth) or as an intrinsic benefit of knowledge for its own sake, above and beyond the expansion of certain areas of the neocortex.

Let us, by all means, pursue the internationalization of Queens College; we are, after all, uniquely situated in one of the most culturally diverse communities in the world.

Perhaps we can begin by rethinking what we tell our students about the value of learning foreign languages.

 

WORK CITED: Mårtensson, Johan, et al. “Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning.” Neuroimage 63.1 (2012): 240-244.

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3 comments to Internationalize Queens College? Absolutely. Let’s Start with Foreign Language Requirements

  • Alexander Moudrov

    Yves, it is indeed appalling that QC, located in one of the most diverse counties in the country, effectively got rid of the foreign language requirements. Perhaps the Year Of… initiative, which spotlights a particular country, is meant to be a suitable substitute for asking students to learn new languages.

  • Yves Cloarec

    Alexander,
    Thank you for that comment. You are right to point out the Year Of… initiative. It is an excellent initiative, with an ambitious mandate and impressive breadth and depth. But I find it lacking in two ways:
    1) to my knowledge, attendance/participation by undergraduate students is neither for credit nor mandatory. At best, the events attract interested faculty, graduate students with nothing better to do, students from the country being highlighted (if the event is at a convenient time) and the occasional undergrads who would rather attend this than sit in the library as they wait for the next class.
    2) for all its “internationalizing” aspects, this initiative is still what I call “cultural sampling in translation.”
    Do not misunderstand: I am a translator, and I affirm that cultural sampling in translation is absolutely better than no exposure at all–and certainly a great place to start; but I believe that as an institution of higher learning we would want to set the bar just a little bit higher than “it’s better than none.”

  • Ray E. Skrabut

    Dear Yves:

    I am also appalled by the non-requirement of any foreign language requirement at QC. Exposure to languages (*any* language other than one’s native tongue) empowers the student to appreciate other cultures in this globalized world we live in. Although I am not what would be called fluent by any means in other languages other than my native English, I have studied several European languages and a few non-European languages on my own over the years, and as retired Distinguished Professor Gregory Rabassa once told me, I would not starve if dropped somewhere other than the United States.

    My studies have allowed me to read the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin, speak to a cab driver in Galway, order a dinner with a bottle of wine at George V in Paris, and ask directions of a passerby in Madrid, amongst other minor feats.

    I hope President Matos indeed does reverse the language non-requirement post haste.

    Regards,
    -Ray