Equip students with the language skills they need

Melissa Macaya

Hablas Español? This is a question UT students entering the professional world will increasingly be asked. UT’s recent budget cuts, however, have affected the institution’s ability to promote bilingualism in students who are often expected to exhibit fluent language skills in an increasingly competitive market.

College campuses are supposed to be excellent places for students to learn another language. Students can solidify language skills gained in high school and learn completely new languages during their college years. Indeed, UT offers around 30 languages including such exotic options as Yoruba and Sanskrit. There are also more than 100 study abroad programs available for students to put their language skills to practical use among native speakers. Organizations such as the Partnership for the Advancement of Language and Culture (PALS) host activities around campus for students to practice languages and meet international students.

But these excellent opportunities are increasingly at risk. The state Legislature slashed funding to the University last year. The cuts hit ethnic and language study programs especially hard. The Department of Asian Studies, for instance, lost 30 percent of its budget, resulting in Vietnamese courses being offered only in the summer at UT’s Language Center.

Aside from the problem of reduced funding, many students do not take advantage of the language opportunities on campus. Many majors require four semesters of a language. However, some students opt to take the credits at a nearby community college or through online courses rather than take more challenging language classes on campus.

The exponential growth in the number of Spanish speakers in the state and country highlights the importance of bilingualism among college students who want to set themselves apart to employers. Whether it is Spanish, French or Chinese, it pays to be bilingual. Additionally, being bilingual has been proven to improve cognitive skills. Research has shown that children who know two languages more easily solve problems that involve misleading cues. Most importantly, bilingual individuals help keep the U.S. competitive in an increasingly globalized world.

So how is the United States faring worldwide in its bilingual abilities? Not well at all. Only about 26 percent of adult Americans can speak a language other than English well enough to hold a conversation, according to a Gallup poll. In Europe, the number of bilinguals exceeds 56 percent. While the European Union’s education system instructs children in their mother tongue alongside two other European languages, dual language education programs are scarce in the United States.

As a bilingual individual, speaking English and Spanish has proven to be not only handy, but also indispensable in my academic and professional life. I grew up attending a bilingual program in Venezuela and learned both English and Spanish simultaneously. Being bilingual has been an enormous asset when applying to graduate school, fellowships and jobs. The reality is that for many employers, being bilingual has almost become an expectation. Colleges must equip students with the language skills they need to successfully navigate our globalized society.

Macaya is a journalism and Latin American studies senior