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The case for taking languages


At the end of last spring, when assignments for the new Ole Ave Townhouses were being decided, the administration decided that Spanish and French would need to split one townhouse, alternating the years they occupied it. How did they decide? By flipping a coin. There were other conditions imposed on language faculty, such as the requirement to fill each townhouse with 10 students or lose the house. This is the same reason Russian and German share a house this year and may need to continue doing so.

If you ask most language majors why they are majoring in a language, they’ll answer with something along the lines of “because I think it’s important.” At a school with 42 majors, every single language ranks near the bottom for how many students choose it as their primary path of study. Spanish has the most language majors, with 60 currently declared, but every other language has 35 or less, with some languages struggling to retain even 10 students. This problem being faced by language departments follows a larger, country-wide problem within humanities — students aren’t studying them. The sentiment surrounding the humanities has changed, and subjects such as English, dance, and theater are often disregarded or seen as useless. Many students choose to have one “fun major” and another that they believe will help them find a job in the future. With current economic instability and general uncertainty about how our generation will be able to find affordable housing and jobs, students feel nervous following their passions or simply trying subjects in the humanities. 

This past year, the language requirements were shortened, much to the dismay of the language departments, who worried this could signal the end for some of their programs. Language professors report that more and more students are taking language just for the necessary general education requirement (GEs). While there is certainly nothing wrong with taking a class for your GE credit, more students than ever show very little interest in their language courses.

Language departments at St. Olaf have long felt that there is a target on their departments. Russian was nearly eliminated for not having enough majors only two years ago, and Japanese no longer has an official language house. If more students don’t begin to major in modern languages like Russian, the departments may not exist for much longer. Language is important, it is the fabric that binds society. As a member of the French house and a former French S.I., of course I’m biased, but I encourage everyone to try a language they didn’t take in high school. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever use it or major in it, don’t give up on our foreign languages.

Ellior Wagner-Smith is from Chevy Chase, MD.

Their major is political science.