Second language undervalued as professional asset

Larisa Manescu

In front of an expectant audience, Mikhail Gorbachev participated in a public interview in the Lyndon B. Johnson Auditorium on Tuesday with his handy, fast-paced Russian translator by his side. The presence of his translator initially surprised many people who had expected him to speak in English, but the issue of bilingualism is far from a trivial observation. If the translation had not been made available, Gorbachev’s influence would have been limited to a very specific audience of Russian speakers instead of the diverse audience he was able to address.

Although the leader’s general message and ideas were conveyed to the audience, details were inevitably left out or distorted. When a language is translated, much is lost in the translation that goes unnoticed.

Language is our essential vehicle of communication, yet it is consistently undermined in the arena of higher education. In this era of globalization, the acquisition of a second language — especially prominent, growing languages such as Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish — should be viewed as a practical and desirable skill. In a US News & World Report article on education, Kathy Mahnke, director of the Center for World Languages and Cultures at the University of Denver, said, “Being able to communicate in a colleague’s native tongue helps business negotiations, as well as social interactions with that colleague go much more smoothly than does working through a translator.”

While being familiar with a second language would aid students of any major, the only major that requires six hours of upper-division coursework in a foreign language is UT’s new international relations and global studies program. Limiting the requirement of extensive foreign language classes to this major is detrimental to the career prospects of students in other majors. Since U.S. companies are increasingly involved with international ones, employers not only encourage but expect prospective employees to have some skill with a foreign language. This includes the ability to logically communicate orally and in writing. Because business negotiations require basic understanding as well as trust and likeability, being able to communicate with people in another language allows a closer relationship to develop between employees from different countries.

However, the issue lies with the general perception of language courses: While they may be enjoyable and interesting, they are not seen as advantageous in the long scheme of one’s career. If a second language were considered a technical skill, such as software analysis or even programming languages, such as JavaScript, students would pursue it more eagerly. If a requirement was established, there would be no assurance that students would take an active interest and participation in gaining fluency in whatever language they choose. Most students would probably not invest in the classes and in so doing, underestimate the opportunities that bilingualism affords.

There is not an inherent weakness in UT’s foreign language programs. The University is home to one of the best Arabic programs in the United States, and it has several other strong programs. However, it is alarming that budget cuts in the past have been focused on lowering the language requirement. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “language departments’ budgets have been slashed by $1.8 million for the 2010-11 academic year.” As future budget cuts are proposed, these types of reductions may be made again.

That language programs are among the first to be targeted by budget cuts demonstrates the need for a shift by both students and faculty in their perception of the professional usefulness of a foreign language. We need to start taking foreign language proficiency more seriously and stop treating the process of learning one as solely an idealistic hobby to idly pursue.

Manescu is an international relations and journalism freshman.