This article is featured in the 2023 Homecoming special issue.
Scores of students flock to brutal 7:45 a.m. drill sessions fueled by coffee, sleep deprivation and, most importantly, a desire to knock out their language requirement. The language requirement — rolled out last year for the Class of 2026 onwards — makes it mandatory for all students to take at least one language or linguistics course regardless of their fluency in another language. While at first glance this seems like a good idea, mandating a language requirement is unnecessarily problematic, especially for those already fluent in another language.
Previously, students speaking another language could test out of this requirement by demonstrating their proficiency or fluency in that language through a placement test or interview. The new requirement now lists three distinct “paths” a student can take depending on their fluency in another language: “Big Green” — for students with no fluency, “BEMA” — for students who have fluency equivalent to one year’s study and “Lone Pine” — for students with native or near-native proficiency in a language. Students must take a certain minimum number of language courses or Language Study Abroad trips to meet this requirement in their allocated path.
For those on the Lone Pine path, fulfilling the requirement bifurcates into two options: Take at least one course from a Language Requirement for Proficient Speakers course list, which deals more with linguistics and the study of language, or study a new language through the 02 level, which means taking two courses.
Right off the bat, a mandatory language requirement is sometimes restrictive and counterproductive to the wider academic goals of the undergraduate population. The requirement for the non-language or linguistics major represents a redundant opportunity cost with limited practical utility, especially for those already fluent in another language. Suppose any Language Requirement for Proficient Speakers courses don’t seem interesting enough, or a student would rather learn a new language to fulfill their requirement. In that case, the opportunity cost increases to at least two credits that could have otherwise gone toward major or minor prerequisites.
Those in favor of the requirement may harp on the fact that learning an additional language has practical advantages. The State Department’s Foreign Service Institute determined that a minimum of 150 hours of language-learning is needed to master “routine courtesy and travel needs,” with 400 hours needed to learn “routine social and limited office needs” in French, Italian and Spanish.
Most language courses at Dartmouth involve 80 to 90 hours of drill, teaching and homework. In a best-case scenario, students taking two courses in a new language to get rid of the requirement only just about learn enough to get by with knowledge of “routine courtesy and travel needs.” This leaves students who are taking language courses solely to satisfy the language requirement in a frustrating middle-ground. This is by no means a critique of how language is taught here, it is just evidence that it makes more sense to make the language requirement optional. Students would rather either completely focus on learning a language to the 03 level and beyond or focus on taking courses that contribute to a different subject area or major.
The language requirement also falters in its language offerings. Dartmouth contends that the new requirement could help students understand other spoken languages on our “multilingual campus.” However, languages like Hindi, Korean, Turkish and Urdu — spoken extensively by international students, are not even offered by the language departments at Dartmouth.
Another gaping hole in its implementation is the tedious process of placement into the Lone Pine for multilingual U.S. passport holders. First-years holding international passports from the Class of 2027 were given an easy transition to the Lone Pine Path with the following email sent to them during New Student Orientation:
“You have listed English as your primary language, but I believe that you may speak another language fluently. If you do, please reply to this email and confirm that you speak another language fluently and share what language you speak.”
A simple email reply sufficed to get placed on the path. For those holding a U.S. passport who know another language, the process to get placed on the Lone Pine track was unnecessarily protracted, thanks to a two-week back-and-forth with administration about language exemptions smack in the middle of course selection. Many first-years — myself included — found themselves uncertain about their path, making class selection for the first time and add/drop infinitely more stressful; we didn’t know if we needed to take just one language course or three. I finally got placed on the path after a farcical Zoom assessment: The person taking my interview barely knew Hindi. Ultimately, the fundamental assumption that all American passport-holders only know English is inherently flawed and remains in stark contrast to the College’s acknowledgment of diversity on campus. Sending the aforementioned email to everyone admitted before course selection and then carrying out fluency interviews — with people fluent in the language — would be a more sensible way to place first-years on their language paths. Another issue concomitant with the requirement is that everyone is — in the best case scenario — placed into the Lone Pine, meaning that even if students know eight languages, they still need to take at least one Language Requirement for Proficient Speakers course or two new language courses.
If you’re interested in learning anything from romance languages to sociolinguistics, you’re in luck: The new language requirement simplifies the process of learning languages at Dartmouth while also providing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to learn about language and cultures through a Language Study Abroad and the ingenious Rassias method. However, scores of students who aren’t are forced to begrudgingly take language courses are left to strategize ways to knock off the requirement as soon as possible to get on with their major. It therefore makes sense to make the requirement optional for native speakers: Either go in-depth into learning languages or linguistics or say tchau to it entirely.
Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.