Why Should We Learn Foreign Languages?


Credit: Ellie Wolfe ’23

How many languages can you hear at Bates? You might see students gathered at the language tables in the Commons. Your friends hurry on their way to language classes at noon, or maybe hear others chatting in another language. Language is the tool we use to communicate, but why do we need different languages in one community? How important is learning languages? What does learning a foreign language mean to liberal art education? Or, do you want to learn another language? 

Statistically, in fall 2022 at Bates, 104 students are enrolled in a beginning class for modern or ancient languages; 209 students are enrolled in intermediate, upper intermediate or advanced language classes; 15 students are writing their senior theses on languages and regional studies. This means that more than 300 students at Bates participate in learning at least one foreign language this semester, which is about 20 percent of the on-campus students, and this doesn’t include students who study abroad for intense language learning programs this fall. 

Learning languages has become an important component of students’ experiences at Bates. Why do they choose languages? 

“I thought German sounded beautiful when I was very little. My high school didn’t offer German classes, so I took extracurricular classes of German on my own.” Luciana Zaiet ’26 shared. “I also speak English and Portuguese fluently, and I learned Spanish in high school. Learning foreign languages and reading them from word to word lets me see the relationship between different cultures.”

“They are not just characters and sentences but symbols of cultures and history.” Leia Gallego-Calle ’25, who is currently taking Immediate Chinese and Traditional Chinese Literature in Translation, shares  the same feeling. “When I know a foreign language, I can better understand the mindset of people who speak this language. I could know why they think and do differently from me. Languages tell people’s mindset.”

Some students also separate language classes from their other academic courses. They think language classes provide them time and space to relax and chat with their classmates by using another language—it’s more of a game than a class! 

“I’m learning Chinese, Japanese, and Korean at the same time because I watched a lot of C-drama, K-drama, and anime—I really want to know what the characters are talking about,” Leia Gallego-Calle ’25 shared. 

“I’m in Japanese 305 now. I learn Japanese because I love anime! I’ve watched anime for so many years and love this culture, as well as the Japanese language and culture.” Kyra Wang ’24 shared. Language departments also hold language tables, where students could meet other students who are learning the same language with them and practice with each other. They form a “language circle.” 

“I met a lot of friends at the Japanese table because we all love anime,” Kyra Wang ’24 said. 

Sometimes learning a foreign language could also change a person’s life and career. “I didn’t learn Chinese until my senior year at college,” Professor Wesley Chaney from the Asian studies department and history department shared his experience of learning Chinese. “I had this classic liberal arts experience: I took a course on Chinese history from a wonderful professor and then decided to start learning the language. It changed my life. After graduation, I stayed in China for several years and committed myself to researching Chinese history.”

Chaney graduated from Davidson College, where learning at least one foreign language is a graduation requirement. If students start to learn a new language as a beginner, they have to reach at least an intermediate level to fulfill the graduation requirement, which means they need to take language courses for at least three semesters. Many other liberal arts colleges also have language requirements, such as Colby, Carleton, Colgate, and Pomona.

Even though 20 percent of students at Bates are learning foreign languages, this is still not a big number in comparison to the past. Most universities used to have an admission requirement on Latin — students must be able to read the original texts of  ancient classics. Colleges such as Amherst examined applicants’ Latin grammar. Harvard required that candidates for the A.B. must present for admission an amount of Latin represented by the term ‘three units’— a unit meaning four or five hours a week of instruction in the preparatory school for one year. However, starting in the 1920s, many colleges eliminated admission requirements in Latin, such as Columbia. The teaching of modern languages gradually took the place of ancient languages in the 1980s. The focus of higher education shifted from “great books” to more practical and professional areas. 

More and more colleges are considering canceling language requirements for graduation these days, so students who aren’t interested in language studies could pay more attention to other courses or pre-professional studies. Some colleges, such as Bates, already don’t have a language requirement. As a result, fewer students choose to learn modern languages, not to mention ancient languages. 

What’s the purpose of learning a foreign language in college? 

One might stop learning the language once they reach the intermediate level and fulfill the graduation requirement, but they build their character in the process of learning languages. The schedule of language classes is usually more frequent than other classes. Elementary Chinese, Japanese, and Russian courses have classes five days a week and Introduction to German has classes four days a week. This requires students to put at least two hours a day attending classes and finishing homework. One has to focus and put effort to be good at a language. We learn and develop personalities from languages: from our classmates, professors, people who speak the language and people who lived in the past. Even if we forget how to speak this language in the future, experiences are unforgettable.

It’s reasonable to predict that more students would pursue professional degrees in the future. A considerable number of students at Bates claim themselves to be pre-med or pre-law, busy working for internship and grad-school entry tests during their leisure time. When everything becomes faster, it’s time to think slowly. Learning languages is a starting point. It’s the time for us to rethink our education, not only the value of learning languages, but also the value of liberal arts education: courses, disciplines, clubs, and what we’re doing every day.