03/20/2012 07:25 pm ET Updated May 20, 2012

UCLA Should Encourage Students to Go Beyond the Minimal Foreign Language Requirement

By Gina Kass

Gyanam Mahajan, lecturer and language program coordinator for the UCLA South and Southeast Asian languages and cultures, always starts the first day of class with a joke: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one? American.

It might seem funny, but this joke has an unnerving ring of truth to it. Americans have a history of unwillingness to learn languages other than their native English. In a Jan. 20 New York Times piece Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and former Secretary of the Treasury, wrote that the importance of investing in languages other than English has dwindled, as English has become the global language.

But such an attitude is misled. Michael Heim, a Slavic languages and literatures professor who knows upward of 10 languages, said that it is naive to assume that everyone speaks English, and it is difficult to understand a separate culture without knowing the language.

The trend of unwillingness to invest in other languages is myopic -- it puts an American lens over our understanding of other cultures. Requiring all other countries to meet our cultural demands rather than making an effort to meet in the middle does not further our diplomatic cause. UCLA should make more of an effort to encourage open-mindedness through language learning, whether it be through increased requirements or increased extracurricular activity.

Language is a valuable resource -- living in a globalized society does not mean we should depend on others to speak English. As more and more of our business moves overseas, there is more of a potential for "mystery pain," a term for a transaction gone awry as a result of miscommunication, said Susan Bauckus, senior editor at the UCLA Center for World Languages.

Most UCLA students are required to study one foreign language for three-quarters. However, this requirement is easily bypassed by many students who took a language in high school and are able test out through AP exams or foreign language placement tests.

This minimal requirement keeps students who might otherwise be interested in studying a language not offered in their high schools from expanding their horizons, as the language classes become empty units that do not move toward a major or G.E. requirement.

Heim said he has spent all of his 40 years teaching at UCLA trying to change this requirement. Unfortunately, he said, UCLA is only a small example of a mentality that pervades the entire country.

For example, the Iraq Study Group Report from 2006 revealed that of 1,000 employees at the American embassy, only 33 were able to speak Arabic, and just six were fluent. This lack of concern for understanding the languages of the countries with which we are entangled reflects our lack of concern for understanding the countries as a whole.

According to Claire Chik, assistant director of the National Heritage Language Resource Center, we have become reliant on translators who are not U.S. employees, and that is a huge disadvantage.

UCLA should encourage foreign language education and urge students to go above and beyond the three-quarter requirement. One of the five principles of being a True Bruin states, "True Bruins respect the rights and dignity of others. They listen carefully, communicate clearly and remain open to diverse perspectives."

How can we listen carefully and communicate clearly when we do not know the language of foreign peers? It would be more in tune with UCLA's core values to require every student to take a foreign language, regardless of the extent of their language study in high school.

For many students who study a field unrelated to foreign language, these classes seem like worthless units that do not help them work toward a degree. Most language classes are demanding -- meeting more often than a regular class -- so it is easy to fall behind. However, the cost of the hours spent in a classroom will be outweighed by the future benefit of knowing a new language.

Mahajan said that the importance of education is equivalent to the importance of learning a language, and students who know an extra language become better job prospects.

Students should look past receiving a mere degree and focus on acquiring a more well-rounded education that will benefit them not only as careerists, but also as human beings. In today's economic climate where job competition is global, American students have to step up to the plate and learn a second language.

Whether students' motivations for adding a language class are heritage-founded, career-founded or simply founded on the sweet sound of a certain dialect, the fruits of their labor will not be lost in the long run.