We tend to use the term “globalization” liberally, but what does it really mean? We don’t have to look any further than our own campus to find the answer.

The Institute of International Education reports that, the University ranks eighth in the country for the number of international students studying on campus. During the 2010-2011 academic year, this amounted to 5,995 students coming to the University from around the world. A 2010 statistical report released by the University of Michigan International Center shows that international student enrollment has steadily increased each year. This is reflective of a broader national trend. According to the IIE’s annual Open Doors report, foreign student enrollment in the United States increased by 5 percent over the past year. To put that in perspective, there are 32 percent more international students studying in the U.S. today than there were one decade ago.

These statistics speak for themselves. Anyone who still believes that isolation from the world outside U.S. borders is a viable option is simply delusional. As with economics and politics, higher education is yet another venue in which people from opposite sides of the globe now interact on a daily basis.

But let’s not get lost in the numbers or cliché abstractions. Like the ever-elusive “diversity,” it’s easier for us to frame foreign students as if they were merely a data point or a homogenous demographic and easier to deem all international students “non-American” rather than invest the time to learn what makes their respective cultures unique from one another. For American students and native English speakers, the more difficult (and urgent) task is to learn how to communicate with and learn from the international students with whom we interact each day. Their presence should be a constant reminder that we live in an increasingly global society. Perhaps the best way to act upon this is learning another language.

Which brings me to my unfortunate point: The University’s foreign language requirement is inadequate.

In the University’s largest school, LSA, fourth-term proficiency in a language other than English is necessary for graduation. For students pursuing concentrations in international studies or specific area studies programs, sixth-term proficiency is required.

Are four to six courses enough to ascertain a new language? Unfortunately, I’d have to say no. As in most schools, basic language courses at the University consist of hour-long sessions that meet anywhere from three to five times each week in a formal classroom setting. That’s not really the issue. The true problem lies in the fact that, as soon as students step outside the classroom, they revert back to English. As long as we still study at the University, we can’t escape the fact that we live in an English-speaking society. English inevitably interferes with foreign language acquisition.

For some students, that is perfectly all right. They consider the foreign language requirement a burden and a distraction from their concentration. But for those who genuinely wish to master a new language, it quickly becomes clear that our current system of foreign language instruction isn’t conducive to actual proficiency. Intro courses certainly provide the necessary foundations — grammar, vocabulary, cultural awareness — that are requisite to long-term language acquisition, but they fall short of supplying students with the tools they need in order to carry on an intelligent conversation with a native speaker.

The best remedy would of course be studying abroad. Immersing oneself in a foreign language and culture is proven to be the most effective means of language acquisition and long-term retention. The University has exceptional resources for students interested in studying abroad, and I would encourage all to consider this option.

Nonetheless, the University can still improve things here on campus. For instance, departments should offer more semester- or year-long intensive language courses. Intensive language classes represent the best available alternative to actual immersion abroad. Having taken intensive first-year Russian, I can attest to the fact that intensive courses do wonders for language acquisition.

Students in the Residential College are required to complete an intensive foreign language program, which allows them to satisfy their LSA language requirement faster. With an emphasis on speaking, RC students also gain superior conversational proficiency. Keeping in mind that students are often wary of devoting so many credits to one class, undergraduates should be encouraged, not steered away, from pursuing intensive foreign language coursework.

Foreign languages are tough. We should recognize this, reward students who pursue languages beyond the LSA requirement and reinforce the fact that foreign language competency makes students more competitive in the job market following graduation. The University would do itself a favor by investing in more intensive foreign language programs and encouraging all students to achieve full language proficiency — something that can’t be achieved at the current low standards. In the future, when globalization is old news and foreign language skills are valued above all else, we’ll be thankful that our University expected the most of us.

Daniel Chardell chardell@umich.edu.

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