BA language requirements are a waste of time and money

Administrative paternalism needs to go.

After years of disorderly review, the Faculty of Arts has unveiled its official proposal for new BA requirements, intended to come into effect for the 2018-19 academic year. The most notable change to the BA will be the removal of the entire 18 credits currently mandated to fulfill Breadth and Diversity requirements. Perhaps what is most shocking about the new BA, however, isn’t what it removes, but what it preserves. Under the new requirements, all students in the Faculty of Arts  with the exception of those who completed a second language at a 30 level in high school and students who can pass a test of proficiency — will be required to take six LOE (Language other than English) credits.

Faculties mustn’t keep their sinking departments afloat by instrumentally, and underhandedly, imposing degree requirements that inflate natural enrolment numbers. The fact of the matter is that most Bachelor of Arts students in foreign language courses would rather not be there, and forcing them to be, under the guise of exposing them to important “pedagogical environments” as the official proposal suggests, reflects the shamefully paternalistic attitude of the administration.

The first reason why the inclusion of the LOE requirement is such an awful idea is that programs like Rosetta Stone and Berlitz can teach these concepts easily and more efficiently. Unfortunately for their students, many professors who are aware of their obsolescence in the world of introductory language learning are self-conscious. Some wrongly claim that they fill a role that couldn’t be filled by a computer. This Luddite-esque paranoia is understandable since many of them would be out of work if the Faculty of Arts wasn’t forcing students into their classes by the thousands. Many professors warn against using translation devices because they lack efficacy. These professors claim that translation software reliably produces inaccurate translations. Even the syllabi of many junior LOE courses issue a caveat that “online translation engines produce very dubious and unreliable translations.”

During the spring semester, as an acquiescent participant in French 111, I relied on Google Translate to assist me in completing a written composition. Upon submitting my piece, I was accused of academic dishonesty. My composition was flawless and my professor arrived at the conclusion that I must have cheated by having a native speaker write it for me. Ahhh the irony. If these technologies are advanced enough to fool a French PhD, aren’t they advanced enough for students to rely on, on the off chance that they are caught in a situation where no one around them speaks English? Clearly, there is adequate translation technology available to the masses and its ‘pedagogical value’ is only increasing.

The faculty’s associate dean, Allen Ball, said in an interview that their primary decision to include the LOE requirement as part of the new BA is a result of globalism: “We live in a global world now, where we have to be able to talk to other cultures, (using) other languages and work with other people from around the world.”

Part of this claim is certainly true. We do live in an increasingly interconnected world. What is not true is that liberal arts students in the Anglosphere must understand a foreign language to operate in this world. Were English not the language of business, academia, and science, this argument might be tenable.

Not only is the faculty keeping the LOE requirement, they are halving the current English requirements. Perusal of the BA Renewal proposal document reveals that this decimation resulted from an administrative assumption that the amount of writing required by other courses will be enough for students to thoroughly develop their English language skills.

English and Film Studies professor and departmenr chair Peter Sinnema, says that the junior English courses removed from the BA requirements provide students with useful academic skills.

“Students get so much more than writing instruction in those first-year courses, they are also encouraged to understand literary production as a significant cultural phenomenon, how to write and speak about literature, how to properly cite their sources, how to construct a persuasive argument in a well-structured essay, how to embed quotations, and how to do research both in the library and online,” Sinnema said in an interview. “All of these skills are part of that first-year education in those English courses.

As someone who thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated my time in junior English courses, I wholeheartedly agree with Sinnema. The skills developed in those two courses have proved to be invaluable to me throughout my undergraduate experience.

In Canada, and most of the other nations who comprise the vanguard of academic progress, English is the dominant language. The fact of the matter is that most prestigious universities operate and publish academic literature in English. This statement of fact must not be conflated with a normative argument for the worth of languages. Spanish is not inherently better or worse than Swahili just as English is not inherently better or worse than French. Nevertheless, understanding that our appreciation for a specific language is not derived from its position on an inherent hierarchy of virtue does not preclude us from making informed decisions regarding which language will be most useful to study. Furthermore, the extent to which mastery of one language should precede the rudimentary venture into another can also be gleaned from historical context. Students in Canada, today, with the possible exception of those in Quebec and parts of New Brunswick, are better off only knowing English, but knowing it very well, than being mediocre at two or more languages. This statement grows increasingly true as the second language in question becomes less spoken.

In a fantasy world where Bachelor’s degrees could be decade-long endeavours, comprised of thousands of courses, it would be cool to study another language. I would also probably enrol in a pottery course or maybe an ultimate frisbee course. Alas, this is not the case. Building a university timetable is a zero-sum game. Mandating certain courses necessarily comes at the expense of others. Those who claim to be champions of a “less prescriptive” degree ought to know this. Forcing students to take two language courses — an hour a day for one academic year — poses itself as a significant opportunity cost to the sort of knowledge that will actually be useful to students later in life.

This is not to say that universities shouldn’t offer LOE courses. Individuals may have compelling reasons to learn a second language. For the vast majority of Arts students, however, this is not the case. Students shouldn’t be forced to spend twice as much time learning a language they are unlikely to use than that which is likely to facilitate the rest of their personal and professional life. Is the university happy to impose itself as an overpriced Rosetta Stone anyways? I daresay it is.

Developing proficiency in a language, if it is not already developed, is the most crucial component of a university education. This is a fact that transcends institution. An individual who brilliantly understands economic theories and patterns, but who cannot express this knowledge intelligibility, is not much of an economist.  Language skills are superordinate; they are the only mechanism we can rely on to correct bad ideas and promulgate good ones.