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.”
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.