In Mark Naida’s article “Foreign language majors don’t need to be fluent at graduation,” he provides the underrepresented perspective of a language major who has studied for years, yet lacks speaking fluency and has not spent time abroad.
I appreciated that he addressed the “Does that mean you’re fluent?” question often asked of language majors, because this question often exacerbates the insecurity we face when deciding what we’re doing with our lives and if it’ll involve our foreign language.
But here’s where Naida gets it wrong: “I found myself wanting to stay at Hillsdale and continue my pursuit of truth instead of the pursuit of skill,” he writes.
He describes his choice not to study in France as one between a higher and a lower good. In resorting to an either-or-ism marking truth and skill as mutually exclusive, Naida goes further than arguing Hillsdale’s language courses offer majors a deeper, richer perspective than pure fluency. He suggests that those who study abroad seek something other than, or less than, truth.
He rightly (but glibly) points out that reasonable fluency is impossible if students don’t “run off to a different country for a semester or more.” His distinction, however, implies truth can only be sought by studying French literature — the bulk of upper-level classes — at Hillsdale.
This poses a problem. If the pursuit of truth occurs optimally, even exclusively, at Hillsdale, then students who study abroad and work toward fluency put truth on the back burner. Are students who study abroad not, like their stateside counterparts, engaging a different culture and differences in philosophy to fully understand their world? Is there really an ocean between those with a utilitarian view of their second language and those with a holistic view?
Generally, people ask the opposite question: Can stateside students engage a different culture and philosophy to understand their world without studying abroad and fluency? While Naida would say “yes,” he does so while still operating within the either-or paradigm to which he’s reacting. He just flips the tables and slaps on labels of truth or skill to give his side weight.
The French major has a flexible, balanced approach to understanding French culture, and Naida’s claim that he sacrificed skill for truth doesn’t reflect this balance.