I would like to highlight a post by Justin E. H. Smith that I’ve already shared in the sidebar, discussing the fact that foreign language programs are the only aspect of the humanities that really “rewire” your brain in a serious way, akin to learning the play a musical instrument — and also claiming that the fact that getting a degree in French no longer remotely means you’ll be able to speak French means that the actual closure of foreign language departments is more the finalization of something that was already long gone.
This post was interesting to me, because I really think that what made the difference in my graduate study, what pushed me beyond what an avocational student would have done, is precisely the work I’ve done on languages. I am a decent reader of several languages at this point (though my ability varies widely — Romance languages seem much easier for me than either German or Greek), and all of that took hours of tedious labor that I simply would not have done were it not for the formal requirements of exams or for the requirements of my research.
I was overoptimistic in my early years about what I could accomplish on that front — I pictured myself, sometimes at least, reading simply everything in the original — but I still hold to a position that I know many regard as elitist: if you are going to do research in the humanities, you must be able to work with foreign languages. That doesn’t mean being fluent — sadly, I don’t really speak any foreign language, though I like to think I could get up to speed relatively quickly if I had the chance to live abroad — but it means getting to the point where you can reliably get the gist of writings in your field in a primary language of competence and, more importantly, being able to pick up related languages when required. (For instance, if you get the basic languages of German and French, you should be able to go through a grammar book for Danish or Italian and start stumbling through texts relatively quickly.)
I understand that not everyone has the same degree of facility in this regard, and I’m sensitive to the fact that I may have a particular knack that makes it difficult to generalize from my own experience — but I am absolutely convinced that inability to read in a foreign language, particularly to read in Western European languages for English speakers, is at bottom a fixable problem and that the main culprit behind people not fixing the problem isn’t innate ability but the learned helplessness that English speakers and especially Americans have toward other languages.
And another thing: one objection to Smith’s post that occurred to me is that it’s very difficult to gain real speaking competence from formal coursework — some substantial amount of time immersed among native speakers seems to be absolutely essential. And it strikes me as ironic that there is increasingly such emphasis on study abroad as a selling point of college, when there is simultaneously so low an expectation that anyone will actually be conversant in a foreign language. All through my education, it has seemed to me that foreign language instruction in America is such a huge joke that one almost begins to suspect that the real purpose behind such courses is to convince students that learning a foreign language is impossible — and by the same token, study abroad programs that allow you to hang out primarily with fellow Americans reinforce the idea that foreign languages simply aren’t necessary.