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Say bonjour, ciao, or hello to expanded language learning at Harvard: The Language Center’s Language Exchange Program — an online database where Harvard affiliates may discover and match with peers who speak their target languages — recently received several thousand dollars from the Culture Lab Innovation Fund to extend its reach. We are thrilled to see Harvard invest its heavy coffers into language learning and look forward to resounding benefits.
Learning a new language is a difficult endeavor with profound value. Of course, knowledge of an additional language unlocks a wealth of opportunities abroad. But language is more than mere mechanistic communication; it also serves as a looking glass into diverse cultures and perceptions of the world. Multilingualism sensitizes us to global perspectives, as revealed through foreign news media, untranslated literature, and — crucially — unfiltered conversations with native speakers. For Harvard’s overwhelmingly American undergraduate student body hailing from a country with limited foreign language study, engaging with these global perspectives is critical to develop a richer understanding of the world.
To learn a language is to more intimately understand a people. Harvard cannot promise to educate global citizens if it fails to engage with global, non-English voices.
We laud the format of the Language Exchange Program for successfully engaging with such voices. The comfortable, casual environment of one-on-one conversations with a peer poses learning as a stress-free, grade-free social experience. Language learners participate in learning for learning’s sake in an environment based on human interaction — a soul-nourishing paradigm that’s all too rare at Harvard. Along the way, participants may create the genuine, lasting personal relationships that scaffold the Harvard experience.
Through these personal, intimate meetings, native English speakers also experience the vulnerability that comes with trying to appear funny, intelligent, or clear in a language not your own. This can, in turn, help counter the American instinct to dismiss the merit of ideas delivered in less-than-fluent English.
We encourage our fellow College students to sign up for the Language Exchange Program, find their own matches, and experience the program’s unique rewards. Given the rave reviews of participants so far, the University may want to consider supplementing the current undergraduate language requirement with participation in the program.
Still, we recognize that the College’s graduation requirements are demanding, and it can often be difficult to make space for language courses within an already packed schedule. This is particularly true for STEM students and those pursuing pre-professional careers. The Language Exchange Program’s flexibility affords students the opportunity to practice languages and retain cultural connections outside of precious course slots. Any initiatives to include program participation within graduation requirements should be designed carefully, to preserve the stress-free nature of the program.
The funding allocated towards the Language Exchange Program is a valuable step toward continuing to broaden diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. However, the path forward entails many more steps. We urge the University to parallel the laudable expansion of this informal, peer-to-peer program, with equal expansion in formal language instruction. The languages taught at Harvard indicate the institution’s priorities. The presence of, for example, Latin, a dead language, but not Tagalog, the fourth most-spoken primary language in the United States, in the course catalog reflects an epistemic scar of colonialism that students are still fighting to redress. To combat this, the University should seek to offer as many languages as possible, formally and informally.
All these languages together will need a physical building to house them. As this Editorial Board has previously argued, Harvard desperately needs an official multicultural center, where students from different backgrounds can come together in dialogue — perhaps even in the languages they’re attempting to learn. The current lack of a multicultural center, like that of formal instruction in major world languages, is a glaring discrepancy in Harvard’s avowed commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
A few thousand dollars for a single language program may seem small. But properly nurtured, this spark could ignite significant DEI changes at Harvard.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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