Summer 2011

Let’s talk

Have Romance languages lost their value?


Point: It’s time to rethink which languages are vital

While being able to read Dante or Virgil in their original language was once considered the mark of the truly educated, the old literary canon has evolved into a liberal arts curriculum for the 21st century. At SUNY Albany, the classics and Romance languages are being cut because of a decline in student interest. While I don’t advocate following suit and eliminating Binghamton’s programs, perhaps it’s time to consider offering only minors in some or all of these languages.

It’s no longer appropriate to offer majors that have no widespread practical use in modern society. What do you do with a major in French or Russian? You could teach or become a simultaneous translator for the U.N. or work in literature translation. But are these options enough to sustain a major?

We need to consider these questions: Though Binghamton just added majors in Chinese, Korean and Japanese, can it support so many language programs? Is it time to scale back Romance language majors in order to expand the Arabic major? Should advisors push students to pick a more practical language as a major? One possible answer: Collaboration among SUNY schools so that one school within each region of the state becomes a knowledge expert in a particular language, where students could thrive in a rich language environment.

While some Romance languages seem to have little practical use, they are still part of the tradition of the liberal arts curriculum and can help Americans develop the multiple language proficiencies we find in so many other countries around the world. Don’t kill them, but cut them back, so that all language needs — the practical and the historically important — can be met.

–Kara Larson Maloney is a second-year English PhD student at Binghamton University.

Counterpoint: More languages mean more business

Considering that most students look to the university not only to educate them, but to prepare them for careers, it is sensible for language departments to emphasize not only the Romance languages, but also languages such as Korean, Chinese and Japanese.

SUNY Albany’s recent cuts to foreign language programs, and the University of Maine’s consideration of suspending bachelor’s degrees in several languages, speaks to how language study is thought of as unnecessary to an undergraduate education now. However, in an increasingly globalized world, it is hard to deny the tie foreign languages have to “professional” majors. The emphasis should now be on making room for language programs that match the emerging business worlds.

According to Tracy Jan’s recent Boston Globe article, business is currently the most popular undergraduate major in the United States. With so many students choosing to go into business or economics, they must be made aware that business is an increasingly “transnational community” of workers, as described by Chrystia Freeland in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. American business, she says, is catching up with other countries that have typically led the way in this regard. “The younger generation of chief executives has significantly more international experience than the older generation, and the number of foreign and foreign-born CEOs, while still relatively small, is rising,” Freeland writes.

While it is typically thought of as bad news for the future of the humanities that so many students are turning to other areas of study, business majors will need to be more familiar with diverse languages and cultures in order to succeed in the global market. Therefore, instead of offering just the languages of the majority of the world’s population or casting the Romance languages as only necessary as part of a high-quality liberal arts education, concentration ought to be on expanding language programs to accommodate greater diversity in the university and the working world. The humanities and would-be corporate executives would both benefit.

–Melissa Sande is a second-year English PhD student at Binghamton University.