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.

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.