Rudoff: Stepping through the language barrier

Jackson Rudoff, Opinion Editor

It’s a fair bet that many of the students on this campus took a foreign language in high school. As oft-criticized as the American education system has become, the language education required by many states is a bright spot. Then again, the American language curriculum certainly struggles to maintain the interest of its students into the future.

Foreign language study has been on the decline for the better part of decade, a phenomenon traceable to the ways in which numerous major universities have cut their language departments. On campuses like Case Western Reserve University, where science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields tend to be the center of attention, classes offered by modern language departments always seem to take a backseat to more “relevant” coursework.

This very idea, that foreign languages are not immediately relevant, is blatantly untrue. While focusing on a specific field of study is important, taking a foreign language course is a critical step to expanding your horizons both academically and personally.

At its core, language learning enhances your capacity to understand others. On a more dramatic level, it’s been shown in numerous studies that language acquisition can change the  way you view the world in terms of basic sensory perception. Rather than cluttering your brain with jargon or new ways to say “hello,” a foreign language course can build upon the ways you perceive your environment and approach the problems encountered within your profession.

In fact, one of those problems could center around a need to communicate with the experts of your field in another language. The STEM world is becoming more global as technology and media progress, which makes speaking multiple languages an increasingly essential component of a STEM professional’s skill set. Enabling yourself to collaborate with your foreign contemporaries opens you up to a new realm of projects or positions once made inaccessible by a language barrier.

While these practical reasons for learning a language could be all that I addressed, they do not give due credit to the more prescient, humanitarian purposes of multilingualism.

In the current American landscape, the nature of our media and politics often tilts the scale in favor of more Anglocentric issues. It caters to perspectives confined by the borders of this country, failing to adequately represent those that live outside them. Having lived in both Canada and the United States, I’ve seen how Anglocentrism can undermine cultural cohabitance in multiple contexts. Taking a foreign language course can allow you to figuratively step beyond the borders of your native country, both through the study of the language itself and the interactions you will have while doing so.

If you take a class in the French department, you may run across Professor Gilbert Doho, a Cameroonian playwright. His classes will take you outside of the course material and teach you endless amounts of info regarding Francophone societies around the world. You may even get invited on a trip to Cameroon, where you can spend a few weeks immersed in the language and learning about a categorically undervalued region of the world. And yes, if that practical aspect is still nagging, you will learn a language that will allow you to work in French-speaking nations.

This single example only speaks to a fraction of the potential experiences that await in the modern languages department at CWRU. With ten languages available for study, there’s no predicting what exactly you will encounter if you take one on as a part of your undergraduate experience.

The most important step forward is taking that leap beyond the borders of your lingual comfort zone.

Jackson Rudoff is a second-year political science and cognitive science major. When he isn’t working at the Observer, he’s usually crafting terrible tweets @im_jacked_son7.