The death of cultural exchange in study abroad

Opinion by Mina Shah
Jan. 10, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

It has recently been announced that the Bing Overseas Study Program in Florence will be lifting the language requirement for next quarter. Read in a particular way, this seems like it could be a really good thing. No language requirement means that more people can go abroad. Fewer people have to worry about fitting language classes into their schedules here at Stanford, concurrently with the demands of major requirements, jobs, groups, clubs, athletics and the social sphere.

En masse, though, this action should be something that we as a community are deeply worried about. Right now, it is only the lift of a requirement in one study abroad program for a single quarter. But when there is no language prerequisite for autumn in Beijing, no language prerequisite for autumn and winter in Berlin, no language prerequisite for autumn in Kyoto, no prerequisites for Cape Town or Istanbul and no prerequisite for winter quarter Paris students taking Principles of Biochemistry that quarter, we ought to be worried by what general trends lifting language requirements could catalyze. Slowly beginning to rid ourselves of language requirements will prove detrimental to ourselves as students, the culture within BOS Programs, and the already strained exchange between the locations where BOS Programs are set and the programs themselves.

We need language requirements for Overseas Study Programs. If we do not have them, while some students will go abroad with language experience, others, who have had no experience at all, will also go. That’s a problem.

Firstly, the students who go into foreign spaces without an understanding of the language beforehand will have a much harder time adjusting to the culture as well, hurting their experience as a whole. They will have a harder time making local friends and interacting with host families (if that is the housing structure of the program). A lack of ability to interact comfortably with locals will further students’ awareness of their positions as outsiders, which can be an extremely difficult thing to cope with.

In addition, without at least a little cultural background through language study, students will not be able to grasp all of the nuances of local cultures that are more easily appreciable when one speaks the language. To have the most enriching cultural experience in a place, an understanding of the language upon arrival is pretty necessary.

Secondly, the Bing programs will be greatly diminished in internal quality if there are no language requirements. Content humanities classes cannot be taught in the language of the place in which the program is situated if students cannot speak that language upon arrival. Those classes that are taught in the language will have to be at a slower pace, preventing students from getting the intellectual experience that they would have been capable of in a classroom where English is spoken.

Students will also be less likely to speak the language outside of the program center if they do not arrive with at least some background. This is understandable, considering that the stresses of adjusting to a new environment in general are exhausting, and that the exhaustion is compounded when throwing a completely new language into the mix. If the students participating in the program have at least some experience, that stressor will be alleviated to an extent.

Thirdly, the interactions between the students in the program and the foreign space itself will decrease, both in quality and quantity. One of the biggest critiques that I’ve heard of Bing programs, both from students who have and have not participated in them, is that they can easily turn into simply an extension of the Stanford bubble abroad. Without requiring students to be able to speak at least some language before entering into a foreign space, this problem will surely worsen. Not being able to speak the local language will further isolate and insulate students from their surroundings, inhibiting any real cultural exchange.

The only way that this change could work without being a total failure is if we, the students, self-impose some sort of language requirement. Understand that you won’t be able to get around using only English. Realize that any moments of cultural connection that you have the possibility to experience will be greatly enhanced with a decreased language barrier. And unless you have some language experience, whether that takes a self-guided or a more structured format, seriously reconsider whether going abroad is the best choice for you at this point in time.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ 

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