Don’t worry—the language requirement won’t kill you


A casual mention of the phrase “language requirement” usually makes people groan. “It’s just so many classes,” they say, “and far too many worksheets.” “It’s such a waste of time,” they quip, “I learned this all in high school. And I still can’t even roll my r’s. What gives?”


The language requirement for Columbia College and General Studies stipulates that a student must complete the second term of an intermediate language sequence, or the equivalent, before graduation; unless you test out with an AP credit or placement exam, the requirement takes about four classes over four semesters to fulfill. Barnard students are also required to take two language courses.

Criticisms I’ve heard of the requirement seem to be that, more formally, four classes is a few too many, language acquisition can be difficult for some, and learning another language seems an irrelevant exercise for many majors and intended career paths.

Frankly, I find these arguments shortsighted. Given full in-house completion of the language requirement takes up roughly a tenth of your undergraduate coursework. However, I insist you consider its fulfillment as complementary, not cumbersome, to whatever else you study.

The most popular—and irksome—complaint is that the requirement is, somehow, a fool’s errand. The requirement has become something to evade, something to put off until summer session (given you can payfor it), or something to fight for an exemption from, period. A language might not seem relevant to your major. The classes may be boring or on Friday mornings—or boring and on Friday mornings. The four-semester-long commitment might be taxing alongside an already heavy course load.

But consider the following: At Columbia, there are over 40 different languages offered in spring 2018 alone. Academia is inherently social, and although English is now a global lingua franca of politics, commerce, pop culture, and study, no academic tradition is purely steeped in it. There is no education that would not be enriched, at the very least, by exposure to another language.

Are you majoring in political science or economics? Take Arabic or Mandarin Chinese. Doing STEM? The scientific community is an international one—give German, Japanese, or Russian a try. If you’re into philosophy, you could one day read Aristotle in Ancient Greek or Buddhist texts in their largely original Classical Tibetan or Sanskrit. At worst, studying these languages will give you enough fun facts to last a couple years of first dates. At best, you will be more knowledgeable, worldly, and even marketable to future employers. (Also, pro tip: none of the languages mentioned meet on Fridays.)

Beyond the advantage they offer, however, learning languages is just awesome. I admit it requires diligence. Vocabulary certainly doesn’t learn itself, and exposure can feel futile—at times, even humiliating—in a classroom setting. In many ways, when grappling with a new language, you are starting from zero, forced into a total intellectual unknown, and left to fend for yourself. That frustration, particularly in its infancy, can be crippling.

However, understanding another language grants phenomenal insight into how people—yourself included—express themselves. The work is more than worth it.

The language requirement is also the most woke part of the Core Curriculum. You could try to gain perspective from a poorly situated Gandhi text that you only half-read because you stopped caring about Contemporary Civilization in October, or you could spend two years studying Hindi and learning about Indian culture through the language Gandhi lived and wrote in. (Maybe you’ll even learn how to call him racist in it.)

I have been around the block with language classes at Columbia. I’m currently studying Arabic, my fourth—and, by far, favorite—since I’ve been here. (Arabic does come at the price, like many languages do, of five credits a semester, but I think the schedule-overcrowding conflict stems from the lowered credit cap, not from the weight of the courses themselves.)

I’ve learned more about Arab culture from five months of my Arabic class than I have in a lifetime of reading the New York Times headlines. As we learn the names of countries and capitals in the Arab world (a term that is, I’ve learned, far preferable to “Middle East”), we discuss what countries are even considered a part of that world. We begin to understand the importance and nuance of the Arab family, as highlighted in the distinction between maternal and paternal relatives, for instance, or in the inclusion of multiple family and tribal designations within a person’s name alone.

Together, my class puzzles over how Arabic has no common possessive verb like English’s “to have” and instead relies on various prepositions and constructions. I wonder how that lexical absence informs cultural understanding of ownership. What does it mean for something to be “to you” or “of you” or “with you” rather than something you “have”? I am slowly learning to engage with Arab culture in the very voice of that culture, a privilege I consider uniquely and almost unthinkably intimate.

I implore—nay, beg—you: embrace the language requirement. Take the opportunity to think totally outside of your sociocultural box. You have to do it, so you might as well learn something. And you know what? While you’re at it, woo a lover with your new words. Go to another country without looking like an apathetic anglophone. Let the grammar of the other language teach you English grammar along the way. Be frustrated and humbled by your inability to articulate ideas. And relish the satisfaction when you are, at last, able to do so.

Harmony is a Columbia College junior studying linguistics, oddly enough. She’s from Hawai’i but somehow doesn’t care to know your thoughts on pineapple pizza. Down to clown? Email her at or Venmo her at harmony-graziano. Striking Chords runs alternate Tuesdays.




January 26, 2018

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