Before coming to Penn, I made the goal for myself that by the time I graduated college, I would be, at the very least, trilingual. I am a native English speaker, studied Mandarin for 15 years from preschool to high school, and am now learning Spanish at Penn. However, by the end of my fourth semester of Spanish, I doubt that I will be able to call myself trilingual.
In the College of Arts and Sciences, the foreign language requirement “affords unique access to a different culture and its ways of life and thought.” The Wharton School’s foreign language requirement is intended to allow students to “engage in an important form of critical thinking.”
Yet, Penn’s requirement is futile in truly equipping students with foreign language proficiency.
Penn’s foreign language requirement is inconsistent. The College and the School of Nursing require four semesters of a foreign language. Wharton requires only two semesters and the School of Engineering and Applied Science has no requirement.
The United States Foreign Service Institute has split up languages by how difficult it is for a native English speaker to reach fluency, with Group 1 languages being the easiest to learn and Group 4 languages being the hardest. Following this idea, it takes a minimum of 480 hours to learn a Group 1 language, such as Spanish, French, or Italian. To learn slightly more difficult languages that fall in Groups 2 through 4, such as Hindi, Russian, and Chinese, it takes a minimum of 720 hours to reach basic fluency.
Let’s do the math. A typical Penn semester consists of around 15 weeks of classes. For a Group 1 language, such as Spanish, the first and second semester typically consist of one-hour classes four days a week. The third and fourth semesters typically consist of one-hour classes three days a week. Over four semesters, that adds up to approximately 210 hours of Spanish instruction. This is sufficient to fulfill the Penn language requirement in the College and Nursing School. Yet it is fewer than half the number of hours needed to reach basic proficiency in a Group 1 foreign language. Within Wharton, most students stop after the second semester, thus, only receiving 120 hours of foreign language instruction.
We see a similar phenomenon with Group 4 languages, such as Chinese. Similar to Spanish, semesters one and two of Chinese consists of one-hour classes four days a week. For semesters three and four, students take one-hour classes four days a week again. This adds up to a mere 240 hours across four semesters, which falls short to the 720 hours that are needed to reach proficiency in Chinese.
A significant facet of Penn education is its pre-professional culture. Our education is structured to provide us with the tools to thrive in the workforce and, more broadly, the real world, both of which are becoming increasingly globalized. As a result, monolingualism is no longer sufficient.
In the workforce, an increasing number of employers are searching for bilingual talent. In 2015, approximately 630,000 job postings were aimed at bilingual workers, compared to less than half that number of job postings in 2010. Given the upwards trajectory of employers looking to hire bilingual workers, the number of job postings has likely increased significantly in the seven years since.
Most Penn students’ first destinations after graduation lie in the banking or consulting sectors. One of the leading companies that was searching for bilingual workers was the Bank of America, a popular company amongst recently-graduated Penn students.
It makes sense that employers are searching for bilingual employees, given how multicultural our world is becoming. In the US, approximately 20 percent of residents are able to speak two or more languages, while the percentage is closer to 50 for the rest of the world. The ability to converse in more than one language opens doors, allowing us to communicate with people that we might not otherwise be able to.
There is no point in learning half of a foreign language. It is a waste of time, energy, and is a disservice to us as Penn students.
The solution to Penn’s predicament is simple. The University must increase its foreign language requirement across the four schools. Varying by the difficulty of the language, Penn’s language requirement should allow for enough hours of instruction to ensure that students reach fluency. This may mean more required semesters, longer classes, or more frequent classes.
I understand that this might be an unpopular idea in the minds of most Penn students. Many of us came to university looking forward to the academic flexibility that we lacked access to in high school. I’ve heard complaints about how frustrating it is to fit foreign language into our already busy schedules and I’ll admit that I’ve voiced similar concerns in the past.
But at the end of the day, we came to Penn to receive an education that prepares us for the real world. By the time we graduate, we must have the capabilities to enter into a multilingual society with both the language skills and cultural competence to thrive. It is Penn’s responsibility to provide us with the tools to do so.
SANGITHA AIYER is a College first year from Singapore. Her email is [email protected]