The Power of Learning a Foreign Language in the Context of a Liberal Arts Education
- Academic Festival
- Hispanic Studies
Nominated by Professor Fernandez de Alba
Class of 2022
Landing on a capstone project topic wasn’t an easy task for me. There was no obvious choice. I wanted it to be meaningful while connecting my two majors, Secondary Education and Hispanic Studies. Anybody in an education field knows that giving the opportunity to make choices adds interest and engagement for most students. Well, I’m the exception to the rule. The world being my oyster is entirely overwhelming.
After missing out on the opportunity to study abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I reflected on my seriousness in learning a language. I thought about how my desire to go abroad revolved around solidifying my true aspiration to become a better communicator and global citizen. This was fueled by my learning of a language within the liberal arts context, including a study away program in Miami, Florida. Advocating for the study of language and culture is something I knew I wanted to pursue through my research.
There are many ways in which people connect. Every connection a person has is established through language, either verbal or nonverbal language. In my research, I consider the ways in which the values of learning a foreign language and the goals of a liberal education align. I also investigate whether the argument against foreign language requirements in colleges and universities has sufficient evidence to support its application. Within the liberal arts context, learning objectives exist to improve the communication skills of all students, whether through writing classes, presentations, or the requirement to learn a foreign language. In many colleges and universities, however, foreign language programs or requirements are being eliminated, based on economic arguments and cultural-centric sentiment in the United States. Learning to communicate with others, especially with those different from us, is an essential part of education. Speaking a different language and achieving intercultural competence is another important step towards a well-rounded education. A person doesn’t have to be an expert in a second language for it to be valuable or to have an influence in their life and others’ lives.
Considering that this research was for my Hispanic Studies major capstone project, there were many challenges. Getting stuck on page 12 with the most severe writer’s block I have ever felt is an example of one. It was difficult to know where my research ended. I also struggled to use pedagogical articles that were written in English and include them in my research paper, which, alternatively, is in Spanish. Now, you might be assuming that using articles in Spanish would be easier, however, finding up-to-date relevant information was complicated. This challenge doesn’t even take into consideration how much slower I am reading in Spanish when compared to English. Finally, I compiled all my research and could see the direction of my paper with one week until the deadline.
I headed to the library and picked up where I left off, page 12. We all know the Cole Room, aka the Harry Potter room. Well, if you saw an air mattress, boxes of tea, snacks, and a diffuser hanging out in there for several days, that was me trying to grind out the last 8 pages. While my friends visited and came in and out at various times, I sat there completing my paper, creating a website, as well as a trifold poster that was eventually presented to the Wheaton community.
While many might criticize my time management skills, I think this intense focus made my project so meaningful. During those days, I spoke with various people about what I was researching. This led to peers sharing related articles and journals they have read for their classes, brainstorming the argument against my thesis, and even some informal thoughts on the matter. The Cole Room became a place where I was engaged with the project individually and collectively, with people in the community.
I think this made the project feel even more important. The topic does have a community impact. Wheaton College is among other liberal arts institutions that have recently changed their curriculum, specifically regarding the foreign language requirement. With the intention of being more flexible, learning a language is only a requirement for two of the three optional honors and scholars pathways. While it is encouraged to pursue an honor or scholar pathway, the lack of requirements can inflict consequences on the language departments. The optimistic perspective suggests that all the students in language classes will be more enthusiastic considering the freedom to choose, rather than to be required to take a foreign language. But the new policy can also cause enrollment to diminish, therefore budgets will be cut, which may lead to brilliant and compassionate professors being cut from the program. The traditional curriculum, now recognized as the Eliza Wheaton Scholars, is known to be a successful pathway that stems from the foundation of liberal arts. Simply put, this is a change that we can not let slide under the radar.
To understand this concern, a person needs to see that learning a language is more than conjugating verbs and achieving fluency. A language can create a new perspective. This new perspective can open new opportunities. These new opportunities create an abundance of connections with different people. Through these new connections, there is exposure to new perspectives. Language opens up a cycle of growth. In addition, language and culture are so closely intertwined. With this in mind, learning a foreign language contributes to the primary goals of a liberal arts education, promoting a well-rounded education, learning how to think critically, developing cultural competency, and communicating effectively. Something like a language requirement prepares people to be citizens of the world. Without it, linguistic diversity can and will be lost. Losing the breadth of linguistic diversity in the world implies the loss of cultural diversity as well. Without the experience of learning another language, the public loses the intellectual experience that has played an integral role in liberal arts education.
Nearly an entire semester later, reflecting on this project has reminded me of what it took to get to a place where I could produce a 20-page research paper in Spanish. I would like to thank Professor Tierney-Tello for the continuous support and time that she invested in this project. It is also important that I recognize all the other professors in the Hispanic Studies Department. They have supported my growth within the last four years. My experiences in the classroom, while studying away, and being a teaching assistant have all contributed to my success. It has been a pleasure to work so closely with you all.
Sinceramente, una estudiante de último año que nunca planeaba especializarse en un idioma. ¡Nos veremos pronto!