Everyone Should Learn a Foreign Language in College

Tommy Collison

In WSN’s pages and elsewhere, students will often take NYU to task over the myriad requirements students in the College of Arts and Science must fulfill before they graduate: two science requirements, up to four semesters of a foreign language, Writing the Essay, a math class and then some. All that’s missing is the partridge in a pear tree. Students with high school credits can skip some or all of these requirements, and those of us lucky enough to have learned a foreign language to an intermediate level can test out of the language requirement. But given the unique environment of a student’s four years at university and the huge benefits of being multilingual, students ought to take as many foreign language classes as their four-year plan allows.

The benefits of learning a foreign language are varied. Beyond the immediate utility of being able to visit a new country and interact with its people in their mother tongue, there is significant cultural exchange. Reading a novel you’re already familiar with in a new language — for me, it was “Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban” — is an efficient, enjoyable way to pick up idioms and syntax that you don’t get in the classroom. By knowing what happens, you’re left to enjoy how the story is told. This is different for each language and is a rewarding experience.

Your time as an undergraduate is perfect for learning a language — far better than your post-graduate years. Learning a language requires short bursts of sustained exposure, and so taking a language three or four times a week brings about a familiarity that breeds success. Taking a language class is also a great way to make friends, whether it’s a shared sense of Stockholm Syndrome or the fact that no two people can do a class roleplay as a journalist and an Egyptian singer of international renown and not end up best friends. NYU’s many study abroad opportunities — from Buenos Aires to Tel Aviv to Shanghai — allow students to take the next step and immerse themselves in an environment where everything from ordering coffee to going on a Tinder date is carried out in the local language.

I can point to the fact that learning a second language can prevent Alzheimer’s, that it improves your memory or that bilingual candidates are more attractive than their monolingual counterparts. But ultimately, I’ve made my best friends in university language classes. I met my partner at a summer Arabic intensive program where we were contractually banned from speaking English. Cultural exchange is its own form of protest against xenophobia and nationalism, and there’s no better way to connect people than by learning how others see the world around them.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]

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