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“To be at home in all lands”: envisioning a multilingual requirement at Bowdoin

October 20, 2023

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Alfonso Garcia

Little over a century ago, Bowdoin’s seventh president, William DeWitt Hyde, envisioned Bowdoin as a space in which students could learn how to be home “in all lands and all ages.” So, as Bowdoin prepares students today to be competent in an increasingly globalized—and multilingual—world, why is it that a student can spend four years at Bowdoin without exposure to a single non-English language?

Besides being English-centric in an increasingly non-English world, Bowdoin’s lack of a language requirement puts students at a disadvantage in a society in which multilingualism is rapidly becoming the norm. Over half of the world is bilingual, and this number is predicted to continue growing. This isn’t just an international trend—by 2050, research projects that one in three Americans will speak Spanish.Though the past few generations have grown accustomed to English hegemony, monolingualism will face increasing difficulty in a world in which non-English languages compete to be at the forefront of global economics, politics and culture.

Already, the supply of linguistically competent individuals is insufficient to meet demand in the U.S. Salaries reflect this supply-demand imbalance as bilingual employees make 5–20 percent more per hour than their monolingual peers. In the fields of international business, diplomacy and journalism, being able to speak a second language is a significant advantage—if not a flat-out requirement. Even in more locally oriented professions, such as healthcare or education, being able to communicate with patients or students who speak a different language can be a tremendous asset. By requiring students to study a second language, Bowdoin would be preparing them for the demands of the job market in a globalized economy.

Beyond simple pragmatism, however, language acquisition is also associated with intra- and interpersonal benefits. Studies have shown that people who are multilingual tend to have better cognitive abilities, such as improved memory, problem-solving skills and attention control. And while Bowdoin already has an International Perspectives (IP) requirement, I would argue that this requirement is far too broad to adequately develop the cross-cultural skill set required of a global citizen. Languages, in contrast, are intimately tied to culture and, by speaking a second language, students gain insight into the customs, traditions and history of the people who speak it. This, in turn, can foster greater empathy and understanding between different cultures and communities in a far more targeted and concrete manner than the current IP credit requires.

I anticipate pushback from those who might argue that a language requirement is too restrictive or specific, or perhaps that it is antithetical to Bowdoin’s flexible curriculum. But I would invite students to reconsider what learning a language offers to the liberal arts curriculum: Just as the Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) requirement equips students with the ability to critically examine creative works or how the Inquiry in the Natural Science (INS) requirement trains students to think scientifically, language equips students with metalinguistic awareness and challenges them to think critically about how language itself shapes meaning, perspective and worldview. Thus, a language requirement, rather than being seen as “restrictive,” should be understood within the goals of Bowdoin’s existing distribution requirements: to create well-rounded students equipped with the tools to think critically in a wide variety of contexts.

Several notable institutions have already recognized the importance of multilingualism: Middlebury, Colby, Carleton, Haverford, St. Olaf, Colgate, Tufts and Swarthmore—all of which Bowdoin considers peer institutions—count competency in a second language as a graduation requirement. At each of these institutions, with the exceptions of Swarthmore and Tufts, a larger proportion of the students in the Class of 2022 elected to study abroad, signaling a correlation between language acquisition and international coursework—the latter of which has a plethora of studied benefits.

It is now time for Bowdoin to join its peer institutions: The Curriculum and Educational Policy Committee should require a semester of a non-English course to Bowdoin’s general degree requirements. Whether the course is language or content-based does not matter; what is important is that students gain awareness—and appreciation—of the linguistic diversity both within and beyond Bowdoin’s campus. In equipping students with ability in a second language, Bowdoin will prepare students to face a society increasingly defined by cross-cultural contact. In short, it’s time to realize that multilingualism is the future—and Bowdoin simply cannot afford to wait up.

Caroline Hallmark is a member of the Class of 2024. 


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