SFU needs to invest more in its language offerings

Simply preserving the languages we have now is not enough

Languages are too valuable to students’ learning to omit them. ILLUSTRATION: Cora Fu/The Peak

By: Michelle Young, Staff Writer

Over the years, SFU has been slowly picking away at its language program. The Spanish Language Certificate was suspended in 2017, and there is speculation that Arabic and Persian courses will be the next to go. In a bid to save languages at SFU, the Language Training Institute has been merged with world literature to create the world languages and literatures department, and it’s not unreasonable to fear that this will result in the further dwindling of language courses. However, languages are an extremely valuable elective to take. Merging the program without investing in more professors and more course offerings will negatively narrow students’ elective choices and leave them with little opportunity to explore new languages at their home institution. 

The reason languages are being peeled away could be due to lack of demand. While overall course enrollment has indeed gone down, it isn’t nonexistent. To keep a broad range of languages available, sections could be reduced to fit the demand; but to completely remove a language option seems extreme and detrimental. Personally, I haven’t seen much promotion of language courses overall, and if students have to dig to discover them, it’s only natural that enrollment drops. Similarly, if only the “most popular” languages are offered, there is little opportunity for students to delve into specialized languages and gain skills that could prove to be extremely valuable in the future. 

The benefits of learning a language are overwhelming. Those who learn a foreign language build multi-tasking skills, improve their memory, enhance overall brain functionality, and can better fend off dementia later in life. Not only are languages great for exercising the mind, but learning a new one can aid in providing cultural insight, provide students with new worldviews, and propel travel opportunities. 

If students are interested in studying abroad, doing an international co-op, or graduate fieldwork in a non-English speaking region, learning a language may be a necessity for these experiences. However, if SFU doesn’t offer a particular language, or only offers a very basic level of study, students will be forced to turn to other institutions for language education, which may not count for credit. This means that the university loses out on tuition revenue and students have to take extra steps outside of their degrees to build up their futures.

On a casual level, multilingualism remains extremely useful in Canada. A 2016 study found that 6.8 million people have a first language other than English, French or an Indigenous language — this is roughly 19% of the population. Even if students aren’t taking a language for educational or career pursuits in day-to-day interactions (though increasingly, being bilingual can help in job searches), speaking multiple languages is extremely helpful. 

At minimum, the new world languages and literatures department should be preserving the current language offerings to ensure students have access to a worldly education. But our university shouldn’t be aiming for minimum effort. It should make an investment in more and diverse language offerings, and promote the benefits of language learning to make sure the courses can thrive into the future. After all, SFU’s slogan is “engaging the world” — it’s hard to do that if our students can’t communicate across languages.