We’ve had a busy few weeks in the department, even if we haven’t been there. One of the largest freshman classes in the University’s history recently completed its fall registration process, and this led to a frenzy of activity as we had to open several new sections of Spanish to accommodate the burgeoning numbers. While our numbers in Spanish are unprecedented, enrollments in French, Italian, and Portuguese likewise are running strong, with long waiting lists in some of our sections. Our terrific faculty will be busy come August with classrooms full of students ready to tackle the language of their choice.
Once upon a time, about a generation ago, RLL rode on the back of a very successful French program, though the growth of Spanish worldwide has since shifted the balance. The composition and the culture of the College were different then too; pre-professional pressure weighed less heavily on the shoulders our students, and the hoary notion that a liberal arts education represented an end in itself still enjoyed traction. Today many students arrive at our doorstep already rushing to their next destination; for them college is all about the ride to the next station, and they don’t always pause to study the subway map. Many students have seemed less inclined to commit to foreign languages, and we often felt we were fighting a losing battle to defend an aspect of liberal education that we still believe is integral to a student’s experience.
That changed a few years ago, when the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, reaffirming the importance of language learning, adopted new general education requirements for undergraduates that mandate either three semesters of a foreign language—in sequence—or four semesters of an alternative. We are now weathering the full-on impact of the enrollments storm that blew in. Our numbers for the fall semester indicate that many students are sticking with the language they already know, namely French or Spanish, though in significant numbers they’re also branching out into the other two languages we offer, Italian and Portuguese. During the debate over the revised distribution requirements, some colleagues in other departments worried that a quasi-language mandate would drive away prospective pre-meds. Not to worry: the College still attracts a superabundance of pre-meds, and they seem prepared to accept the challenge of a foreign language along with that of organic chemistry. Want to guess which course is more likely to turn the dream of medicine into a nightmare? It won’t be French 307.
A recent op-ed in The New York Times (July 15, 2014) offered a nifty reminder of why language learning is not just sound educational policy, it’s sound health policy as well. In “The Benefits of Failing at French,” William Alexander recounts how he tried and failed to learn French at the age of 57. Prior to attempting French, he had taken a cognitive assessment, landing in the bottom tenth percentile in composite memory and the bottom fifth in visual memory. Needless to say, these are discouraging scores, particularly for someone in his late 50s, which after all isn’t that old anymore (it happens to be the age of this writer). After a year of fighting with French, he retook the test, now scoring in the eighty-eighth percentile in composite memory and the fiftieth in visual memory. Researchers note, Alexander continues, that the very tasks associated with language learning involve regions of the brain that often weaken as we age. In other words, language learning isn’t some dilettantish indulgence; it actually works your brain in a particular way that keeps it agile and youthful. Our many future doctors in the class of 2018 would do well to remember that. (MS)