How many languages can you hear at Bates? You might see students gathered at language tables in the Commons. Your friends are rushing to language lessons at noon or maybe they hear other people 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 language learning? What does learning a foreign language mean for liberal arts education? Or do you want to learn another language?
Statistically, in the fall of 2022 in Bates, 104 pupils are enrolled in an initiation class for modern or ancient languages; 209 students are enrolled in intermediate, upper intermediate or advanced language courses; 15 students are writing their dissertation on languages and regional studies. This means that more than 300 Bates students are participating in learning at least one foreign language this semester, or about 20% of students on campus, and this does not include students studying abroad for intensive language learning programs this fall.
Language learning has become an important part of the student experience at Bates. Why do they choose languages?
“I thought German sounded good when I was very little. My high school didn’t offer German lessons, so I took German after-school lessons myself. Luciana Zaiet ’26 shared. “I’m also fluent in English and Portuguese, and I learned Spanish in high school. Learning foreign languages and reading them word by word allows me to see the relationship between different cultures.”
“They are not just characters and phrases, but symbols of cultures and history.” Leia Gallego-Calle ’25, who is currently taking a course in Immediate and Traditional Chinese Literature in Translation, shares the same sentiment. “When I know a foreign language, I can better understand the mindset of people who speak that language. I could know why they think and act differently from me. Languages tell the state of mind of people.
Some students also separate language lessons from their other academic lessons. They believe that language lessons give them time and space to relax and chat with their classmates using another language. It’s more a game than a lesson!
“I’m learning Chinese, Japanese, and Korean at the same time because I’ve watched a lot of C-dramas, K-dramas, and anime. I really want to know what the characters are about,” Leia Gallego- Calle ’25 shared.
“I am in Japanese 305 now. I’m learning Japanese because I love anime! I have watched anime for so many years and love this culture and Japanese language and culture. Kyra Wang ’24 shared. Language departments also organize language tables, where students can meet other students who are learning the same language with them and practice with each other. They form a “linguistic circle”.
“I met a lot of friends at the Japanese table because we all love anime,” said Kyra Wang ’24.
Sometimes learning a foreign language can also change a person’s life and career. “I didn’t learn Chinese until my senior year in college,” shared Professor Wesley Chaney from the Department of Asian Studies and the Department of History about his experience learning Chinese. “I had this classic liberal arts experience: I took a class in Chinese history from a great teacher, and then I decided to start learning the language. It changed my life. After I got my graduation, I stayed in China for several years and became engaged in researching Chinese history.
Chaney is a graduate of Davidson College, where learning at least one foreign language is a requirement for graduation. If students start learning a new language as a beginner, they must reach at least an intermediate level to meet the graduation requirements, which means they must take language classes for at least three semesters. Many other liberal arts colleges also have language requirements, such as Colby, Carlton, Colgateand Pomona.
Even though 20% of Bates students are learning foreign languages, that’s still not a large number compared to the past. Most universities used to have a Latin entry requirement – students must be able to read the original texts of ancient classics. colleges such as Amherst examined the candidates’ Latin grammar. Harvard required AB applicants to present for admission an amount of Latin represented by the term “three units” – one unit meaning four or five hours per week of instruction at the preparatory school for one year. However, beginning in the 1920s, many colleges eliminated Latin admission requirements, such as Colombia. The teaching of modern languages gradually replaced ancient languages in the 1980s. The focus of higher education shifted from “big books” to more practical and professional areas.
More and more colleges are considering waiving language requirements for graduation these days, so that students who are not interested in language studies can pay more attention to other courses or to pre-professional studies. Some colleges, like Bates, already have no language requirement. As a result, fewer students choose to learn modern languages, let alone ancient languages.
What is the purpose of learning a foreign language at university?
One can stop learning the language once one has reached the intermediate level and fulfilled the requirements for graduation, but character is built in the process of language learning. The schedule for language courses is generally more frequent than for other courses. Elementary Chinese, Japanese, and Russian have lessons five days a week, and Introductory German has lessons four days a week. This requires students to spend at least two hours a day attending class and completing homework. It takes focus and effort to be good at a language. We learn and develop personalities from languages: from our classmates, teachers, people who speak the language and people who have lived in the past. Even if we forget how to speak this language in the future, the experiences are unforgettable.
It is reasonable to predict that more students will pursue vocational studies in the future. A considerable number of Bates students say they are in pre-med or pre-law, busy working for internships and graduate school entrance tests in their spare time. When everything gets faster, it’s time to think slowly. Language learning is a starting point. It’s time for us to rethink our education, not just the value of language learning, but also the value of liberal arts education: classes, disciplines, clubs, and what we do every day.