Beliefs of American University Students Towards Foreign Language Requirements and Textbooks

I’ve been reading articles and dissertations on students’ beliefs and perceptions of foreign language study recently, and came across two with some incredibly painful quotes that I had to share.

Foreign Language Requirement

Price and Gascoigne (2006) reported on 155 incoming (directly out of high school) college students who responded to this essay prompt:

One goal of a college education is to become a well-educated person. In the past, most degrees required that students study a foreign language, but many degree programs have dropped that requirement. As a new student, write an essay in which you explain both sides of this issue: why students should and why students should not be required to study a foreign language. Include your personal opinion in your response.

[Currently in the United States, around 50% of higher education institutions (according to a recent article in Forbes) have a foreign language requirement for students earning a Bachelor’s degree.  In the mid-90’s, the figure was 67.5%.]

Some choice quotes from the not-so-well-educated teenagers:

“If you come to the US, you speak the language spoken in the US. Everyone in the US should not have to learn Spanish.”

“The US was founded in English, let’s keep it that way.”

“We are Americans and our language is English.”

“There are so many foreigners entering our country, both legally and illegally, who do not know the English language, that we now have to learn their language just to get by from day to day.”

“In the Constitution of the United States you have to be able to read, write, and speak English.”

I just… ugh… what?

The United States was not “founded in English” nor is it the official language of the US and English is certainly not mentioned in the Constitution. I’m a little confused as to why these students decided to complain about immigrants instead of actually talking about Americans learning foreign languages. Do they really think that  Americans learning other languages equals immigrants in the US no longer needing to learn English? That the only reason to learn another language is to cater to immigrants? What about cultural understanding, breaking stereotypes, better job opportunities, travel, self-improvement, cognitive benefits of bilingualism, appreciation of other human beings?  Youth of America, I cry for you.

To be fair, there were many “pro” comments that were intelligent and not borderline racist. Overall, 57% of the students had a positive attitude towards the foreign language requirement. So there is still hope…


Foreign Language Textbooks

Virginie Askildson’s (2008) PhD dissertation from the University of Arizona, “What do teachers and students want from a foreign language textbook?”, gives us some great quotes on what students think about French textbooks. Over 1,000 students of French at American universities responded to the questionnaire. Agreeing with the statement “I trust the cultural content of my textbook,” the students explained why:

-“its a text book for a reason, if the cultural info was false it wouldnt be printed or chosen by the department. So I do believe the cultural topics.”

-“it’s proofread and someone will pick up the fact that it’s wrong if it is indeed wrong.”

– “its published in my book”

-“ if the cultural info was false it wouldnt be printed or chosen by the department.

– “I figure it had to be read by multiple people who know the material well.”

-“Because it was written and published by professionals”

– “They wouldn’t get into so much detail over something if they were going to lie about it. It simply seems unlikely that it’s made up.”

– “it is written by professors and i just trust it.”

And my personal favorite:

“books can’t lie. It’s unheard of.”

Yes, that’s right. A university student believes that books cannot lie.


I am speechless.

  • Glenn from St Paul

    I hope you will consider returning to the States after you complete your studies. Nothing against Australia but American higher education could certainly use your passion and intelligence.

    • No such luck – I’m going to stay in Australia permanently. 🙂

  • I have to disagree with the opinion that foreign languages should be required classes to graduate college. The fact of the matter is that one does not need to know a foreign language to be a good engineer for example. Class time spent on foreign language instruction in a discipline where it is not needed is a waste of time, especially if the languages offered are not of interest to the student or not all that helpful to the industry. Returning to engineering, Spanish and French for example do not have a lot of utility in the engineering field. That class time could be better spent on courses to expand that engineer’s engineering knowledge. A language cannot be taught, it can only be learned. Requiring foreign language classes at the university level is not going to guarantee that anyone learns a foreign language, but it will waste a lot of students’ time who went to that university to learn the industries they are passionate about. I want to stress that I am not against learning foreign languages, I speak two and hope to start on my third soon. However I learned these languages on my own account, in my free time, because I was passionate about them, not because they were some requirement to university education. However, just because learning foreign language is something that i like to do, that does not mean that we should force everyone else to do so as well, especially when that time could be spent more productively learning other things.

    • I agree that required classes are a bad idea. I hated the general education requirements that were part of my BA. Forcing people to take classes that they have no interest in just makes them resent the material even more. Plus the way languages are taught at most unis is so boring that I can understand why people say they hate taking language classes. I still think learning languages on your own (and especially at your own pace), with the internet and help of other advanced/native speakers is the best way until schools and universities change to allow students to learn in a manner that is actually helpful (not all together in a classroom, learning the exact same things at the exact same time). I do teach French in a traditional classroom at my uni but luckily we also have a language lab so I can use authentic audio-visual materials and get the students speaking more. Personally, I would prefer to teach online classes so that students can study what they want when they want but that’s beyond my control.

  • Bob Blackburn

    I graduated in the 80s with a BS in Computer Science. Although I took 2 years of Spanish in HS as part of the college prep track. A foreign language was not required for graduation with a BS degree.

    Now I wish it was. Is it directly related to working in IT. No. But, I have been in meetings where I am the only American in the room. Learning about the language and culture of my coworkers builds a better team. And, just like sports, the best team is usually the most successful.

    It is a great ice breaker when you can say a few words in someones native language. I have had long conversations with people who barely say hello to most people in the office. So even my limited language abilities opens doors.

    • But one can learn the language and culture of ones coworkers without a mandatory college class telling them they need to do so. And those who are not interested in learning a foreign language are not going to learn it just because there is a mandatory class. Add that to the fact that foreign language classes are notoriously inefficient at teaching foreign language in the first place and it becomes obvious that making foreign language classes mandatory is not the answer; rather, it would be a large money pit with very little gain.

      • Bob Blackburn

        I agree. I think high education is long overdue for a major overhaul. I have yet to use my college art class personally or professionally. Yet, that was mandatory. The Bio class was nicknamed Back Test 101 because you needed back tests to get through it. So, did students get more out of these mandatory classes. I doubt it.

        The quotes in the article show students ignorance. Higher education should help eliminate ignorance. Which classes should be mandatory can debated ad nauseam.

    • I think the trend is that most BS degrees don’t require a language in the US. I’m not for mandatory/required classes in higher ed but I do think we need to teach students the value of foreign languages and learning about other cultures for better intercultural comprehension. Like you said, just saying hello in another language is a great way to open doors and communicate with others that you normally wouldn’t or couldn’t

  • Canedolia

    I’m quite impressed that even 50% of the degree programmes have a foreign language requirement – that’s definitely not the case in the UK, and we have foreign countries a lot closer to home than most of the US. And while I appreciate the points made below about whether it should be compulsory or not, I think having the requirement sends out the right message: that being able to communicate in a foreign language and have some understanding of a culture that is not your own is part of being a well-educated individual.

    It’s interesting that so many of the negative comments refer to immigrants in the US rather than to whether or not languages are needed for foreign travel. I don’t think people in the UK necessarily have more positive attitudes to languages, but the reasons would definitely be much more along the “everybody else speaks English so I can travel without it” lines.

    As for the comments on the textbooks – yes, a bit scary, but isn’t it even sadder if university students can’t trust their tutors to choose accurate course material?

    • I suppose the lack of comments on traveling with only knowing English reflects how many Americans never leave the US or only go to places where English is spoken such as other Anglophone countries or the major resort areas in the Caribbean which are full of other Americans, Canadians and British people. It’s quite sad how many people have never gone to a foreign country and really experienced life outside of American borders.

      As for textbooks, another problem is that the teachers/teaching assistants (tutor means something different in the US) for most language classes at universities don’t get to choose what textbook they use. It’s chosen by the program director, who may or may not even be teaching the class anymore, and it’s usually driven by publishing companies and/or if the author of the textbook is from that university. I would love to be able to choose better materials for my French class but I don’t have that choice.

  • Heh, did you write this because I bugged you about it on Twitter? Well, thanks regardless.

    I’m not too surprised and I’m a huge proponent of learning foreign languages in general though for what it’s worth I really don’t think it’s a good idea to require them in university, the only thing that’ll result in is further turning people off to learning foreign languages, which they’re already probably somewhat turned off to thanks to how foreign language education is generally handled in our schools. I went to Tulane, we had a language requirement (3 semesters or you could test out of it), and people just picked whatever they thought would be easiest (Spanish 90% of the time), did the absolute bare minimum to get the grade they needed (memorized, crammed, and then promptly forgot it as soon as their grade no longer depended on knowing it), and then stopped studying the language altogether as soon as their foreign language requirement was fulfilled. This is what the great majority of students in the first three levels of the more popular languages did (people taking more obscure things tended to be people who were doing it because they were actually interested in that language) in my experience.

    Forcing students to study a foreign language, in university at least, is counter-productive, not only does it not do anything whatsoever in terms of getting them to learn a language (cram, brain-vomit on the test, forget, wash-rinse-repeat) but it actually harms the ultimate goal of getting more people to learn a foreign language by putting them off of learning languages and making them think “oh well, I took Spanish/French/German/whatever in college, I never came close to fluent, I just don’t have what it takes, I can’t learn a foreign language”.

    I’m all about making people want to learn a foreign language, I’m strongly opposed to any attempts to force them to. I understand that this doesn’t apply with children who need to have the subjects they study chosen for them to some degree or another, depending on how old they are, but we’re talking about university students here and they’re plenty old enough to decide whether or not they want to study a language.


    • I was actually writing the post while complaining about the students’ comments on Twitter. 🙂 I agree that students shouldn’t be forced to take languages or any other classes they don’t want/need for their majors. I always hated that I had to waste an entire year – not to mention money on tuition – for classes that were forced on me. Luckily in most other countries (at least in Europe and the Commonwealth), BA’s are only 3 years because there are no general education requirements. Getting students to want to learn a language and/or take a language class is definitely the better way to go about it.

      • >BA’s are only 3 years because there are no general education requirements.

        Oh wow, that’s fantastic, that’s precisely how that should be done.

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