Diana Kugel: Raising the bar for language education

As you leave Foggy Bottom this spring, you may think that GW is going to hibernate until you return next fall. Fortunately, things don’t quite work that way, and one of the projects occurring in the ensuing months is a re-examination of the general curriculum requirements. Hopefully language education will play a significant role in this reassessment.

In the fall, a committee in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences will release its recommendation on a possible reform to course requirements (“Columbian College mulls GCR changes,” Apr. 21, p. 1). CCAS Dean Peg Barratt said if the school makes any changes, it will likely be a decrease in the amount of required courses.

For the most part, I agree with the arguments for less mandatory courses and giving students more freedom to design their educational careers. As Claire Autruong reasoned in her April 17 column (“Reimagining general requirements,” p. 4) the purpose of a GW education should be to arm students with relevant knowledge instead of just familiarizing them with a wide range of topics. As a non-science major, I have personally struggled my way through two science classes, and am dreading the idea of having to go through one more.

Still, there is one area of study that – rather than having too many requirements – seems to have fallen far behind. In a world where we are more and more globally connected, it is surprising that learning a second language seems to be at best optional, and at times difficult, in many of GW’s schools.

True, the Elliott School of International Affairs does require a third-year-level proficiency in a modern foreign language. But in the Columbian College, students must complete six to eight credit hours in Foreign Languages and Cultures, and can easily avoid stepping inside a language classroom by taking history, geography, art or other classes that satisfy this requirement.

As for the School of Business, the only possible reference to a language class is that in their first year, students must take “one approved elective focusing on a culture or political system other than one’s own.” For a school that is supposed to be educating the top business leaders of tomorrow, it is surprising that students are not encouraged to learn Arabic or Chinese, or one of the other languages that dominates large parts of the world’s business market. While business students do have some electives, their curriculum is so structured that achieving proficiency in a new language would prove difficult, as is true for students in some of the other GW schools.

Professional goals aside, it is slightly shocking that in this day and age, being a well-rounded and educated individual does not mean being able to command a language other than your native tongue. At the risk of sounding like your typical “just returned from studying abroad with an overly enlightened perspective” student, I have to say that I was impressed with how most Europeans I encountered could fluently communicate in at least three languages. In my host city of Barcelona, children start elementary school learning Catalan, Castilian and English, and continue with these languages through university.

Donald Lehman, executive vice president for academic affairs, has said the Columbian College’s decision regarding GCRs could affect similar changes in the other schools. Among whatever other changes it may make, hopefully the school will set a trend of making language education a staple of the GW academic diet.

The writer, a junior majoring in psychology, is a Hatchet contributing opinions editor.

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