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Education Reporter

Money Out the Fenêtre
Budget cuts are forcing colleges to end
foreign-language requirements. It's about time.
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By Jim Sollisch

If you have a job, the recession hasn't been all bad. You can get a great mortgage rate, productivity is up, and families are spending more time together. Also, according to a recent article in the New York Times, liberal arts colleges are dropping their foreign language requirement because of budget cuts. Recession or not, that's good news.

As a liberal arts major and one-time college writing instructor, I know that I'm expected to understand that language helps break down walls — both metaphorical and real — between cultures. That's the received wisdom at least.

But ask a recent college grad to say something in the language he or she was forced to take for two years. You're in for a short monologue.

My daughter can barely read a menu in French after two years and thousands of dollars in tuition. Clearly money thrown out the old fenêtre. She won't be breaking down any walls between us and the Frogs.

All that French, Spanish and German makes it harder for liberal arts students to study science, business and economics. All of which would be a lot more useful than learning to parse verbs in a language they have no intention of speaking once they leave college.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for the study of foreign languages. Students should be able to choose from a variety of languages at every university. The key word being "choose."

How did two years of foreign language become a requirement at the vast majority of colleges? It seems so random. Why don't we make two years of economics a requirement for all liberal arts degrees? Why do we cling to a subject that has the smallest return imaginable for the vast majority of students?

If the goal is to make our graduates less provincial, then there are better ways to go about it. We could easily replace those two years of language with a mix of comparative religion, comparative government, cultural anthropology and geography. That would give students a more global, less ethnocentric worldview.

As a parent of three recent college grads — with two more still in school — I have a good vantage point from which to view this debate. I wish our daughter, a psychology major who wants to do market research, could have replaced French with a minor in marketing. I wish my son who was an English major could have traded his two years of language for courses like Web design, journalism or marketing — courses that might have exposed him to career paths that would take advantage of his excellent communication skills.

Unfortunately, my son was busy taking two full years of Swahili. Yes, Swahili, which he discovered was the best way to knock out his language requirement because it's phonetic and professors assume no past knowledge. Since three years of French in high school had taught him nothing, he signed up.

Maybe it will give him a leg up on a job as a waiter at a Tanzanian restaurant. That would be something.

Mr. Sollisch is a creative director at Marcus Thomas LLC. This article was originally printed in the Wall Street Journal on 12-15-10 and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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