In defense of the foreign language class: benefits outweigh drawbacks

The university should require all students to take at least one foreign language class.

Angela GervasiIt was my first Spanish class, and I was in trouble.

We were learning the word “emocionado,” and the teacher insisted that students pump their fists into the air to remember that the expression meant “excited.”

I found the activity ridiculous. Mr. Dwyer noticed.

He called me to the front of the classroom to demonstrate the gesture. At 13, I was self-conscious and could feel my face growing red as I acted out “emocionado.”

“You have to do the gestures,” he insisted.

Years later, I’m thankful for that moment: It was the first of many lessons that made me realize learning a language is about more than memorization.

Sticking with Spanish has been one of my best decisions. It exposed me to a world of cultures and conversations. It allowed me to communicate and establish friendships during a summer studying in Cuba. It served as a useful tool when I began learning Italian.

While it’s possible to maneuver one’s way through the world in English, knowing another language is a true gift. It leads to more job opportunities, at home and abroad. Studies have shown it can improve memory muscle, decision making skills — it can even improve one’s own English.

Without a doubt, Temple should encourage its students to explore a language, and the cultures that go along with it. To do this, the university should add a foreign language requirement to its General Education Program.

The more people I’ve met from different countries, the more it has dawned on me that being monolingual is unique to native English speakers. More than 1.5 billion people speak the language worldwide — as a result, Americans can often “get by” in foreign countries by counting on the English-speaking ability of everyone around them.

“This is a strength for people in English-speaking countries … but it is also a weakness, because it doesn’t provide the motivation to learn another language,” said Cristina Gragnani, an Italian professor.

Gragnani, a native of Italy, studied English since middle school. Later, she attended an exchange program at a French university — the experience exposed her to a world of possibilities.

“Learning a foreign language and being curious about foreign cultures was not only fun, but could also open up opportunities: professional opportunities, opportunities for personal growth,” Gragnani said.

Living, studying and working in France paid off: Soon, Gragnani’s French skills had surpassed her knowledge of English. The key to learning French, she said, was her motivation.

This motivation isn’t quite as common in the United States. A Modern Language Association review of 2013 enrollment data revealed only 7 percent of college students are enrolled in a foreign language course.

“I think it’s important, especially at such a diverse university,” said Matt Refford, a junior neuroscience major.

But increasing foreign language education is easier said than done.

I was lucky enough to have incredible language teachers in high school, but many of my peers never got that privilege. While I was gushing over “The Motorcycle Diaries” and Manu Chao songs, other students, like Refford, were met with disappointment in Spanish class.

“Since everyone took a language, the school hired language teachers based on quantity instead of quality,” Refford said.

After two years of watching Spanish instructional YouTube videos in class, he dropped the course altogether.

“Sometimes, the idea that learning a language is difficult or tedious comes from high school experience,” Gragnani said.

For Katia Matychak, a sophomore neuroscience major, foreign language is important, but difficult to squeeze into her schedule.

“As a pre-med science major, it’s pretty hard to take classes that aren’t a major class or a required Gen-Ed,” Matychak said.

Refford and Matychak’s experiences represent very real obstacles between American college students and foreign languages.

If Temple were to implement a foreign language Gen-Ed requirement, students could overcome these obstructions.

Of course, as Gragnani said, motivation is key, and it’s important to be open minded in any foreign language course — to do silly hand gestures, or whatever it takes, to truly understand. Gragnani herself remembers the moments of embarrassment she experienced while learning French and English, but she continued to pursue both languages.

“There will be setbacks, there will be frustrations,” Gragnani said. “It’s really important to understand that it’s part of the game, and language instructors went through that.”

Requiring at least one foreign language course for all university students would allow a busy student to fit foreign language into their schedule. It could allow a second chance for students who’ve had botched high school experiences.

Or, it could lead to a student discovering and loving a new language. Gragnani has seen it happen in her Italian class.

“After day one, [students] can already introduce themselves, ask ‘How are you?’ and can ask about other people’s age or where they are from,” Gragnani said. “That’s really rewarding.”

And Gragnani was right: when I made that first blunder in Spanish class, I never would have guessed I’d be able to make connections in foreign languages years later.

A language requirement — with proper teaching and open-mindedness — should be instated, to allow all students to reach these rewards.

Angela Gervasi can be reached at or on Twitter @anggervasi.

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