An Open Letter to the Calvin University Administration on Foreign Language Acquisition

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To President Le Roy, Provost Brandsen, and the University Core Task Force:

We the undersigned Calvin alumni write to you in advance of meetings scheduled for November 17 and December 9 where, as we understand it, critical decisions will be made regarding the future of Calvin’s Core Curriculum.

We write, in particular, out of an abundance of concern for the future of foreign language instruction at Calvin University knowing that in 2013, the German department was nearly eliminated and that other foreign language programs have previously been in precarious positions for budgetary reasons.

The intent of this letter is to make it known that foreign language study was an indispensable part of the excellent liberal arts education that we received at Calvin. We wish to express our firm conviction that foreign language acquisition has a central role in higher education—and particularly in a Christian Reformed tradition that seeks to meaningfully engage the world. Language is a vital part of our identities, influencing how we understand the world and our place in it.

Regarding the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, Calvin’s website states,

"Our backgrounds are part of our identities and shape the stories of our lives. We know that creating a welcoming space where all stories are heard and valued makes for richer conversations, scholarship, and community. At Calvin, we are committed to creating an atmosphere where diversity and inclusion flourish."

We believe that learning a foreign language is critical to creating “an atmosphere where diversity and inclusion flourish”—as is further suggested by Calvin’s Diversity & Inclusion page, which goes on to cite Calvin’s rich foreign language learning opportunities. In an affluent nation such as the United States where many of us feel we have the privilege to affiliate solely with people of our own cultural and linguistic background, many wonder at the utility of learning a foreign language. The authors of the 2004 document “From Every Nation” give warning to this attitude, stating:

"Our personal identities may include the baggage of cultural superiority … Yet as Matthew 10:39 reminds us, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give it up for Me, you will save it” (Living New Testament). It is this posture—and the risk it entails—that undergird the cross-cultural engagement we require of our students in the core curriculum."

At this very moment when so much of the world has turned in on itself, building walls and barriers—literal and figurative—it is incumbent on us that we resist this tendency to “cling to one’s life” and instead consider how we can better reach out to those most in need of our love, support, understanding, and solidarity. The authors of “From Every Nation” warn us against this very posture, asserting that “working toward a multicultural Kingdom of God is not simply a high-minded ideal; it is a dictate of biblical justice.”

While most of us could not claim fluency after our two years of foreign language requirement, we learned much more valuable lessons about the meaning of Christian hospitality in these classes.

First, we learned humility and gained empathy for those in our community who are learning English and those who struggle with speech disorders. Studying a foreign language forced us to relearn the basics of how to express ourselves—often with maddening frustration when we failed to communicate an idea or correctly pronounce a word despite weeks (or months!) of practice. This process made it abundantly clear that struggling to express even simple ideas in a second language does not indicate a lack of intelligent thought or inarticulation in one’s native language. Thus, we learned to be more patient and gracious listeners.   

Secondly, the cultural component of our foreign language courses opened our eyes to other ways of being in the world. It gave us a deeper understanding of what it means to be united as Christ’s body in the global Church. As we encountered cultures different from our own, we saw our own cultural identities from a new perspective, learning to unpack assumptions and better understand perspectives that might have seemed strange or incorrect. This new understanding has helped to make us people who value others’ perspectives. It has made for “richer conversations, scholarship, and community” in our lives by teaching us to approach others with more compassion, empathy, and humility.

Finally, the foreign language requirement at Calvin has brought about many professional opportunities for us. As you can see from our majors, we did not all specialize in foreign languages. Conversely, not all of us are employed in areas where our degrees in foreign language have obvious relevance. Nonetheless, this part of our education has set us apart from other qualified applicants, providing opportunities that might have otherwise been out of reach. It has opened doors for many of us to valuable internships: for example, those brought about through the unofficial partnership between the German and Engineering departments. It has enabled us to participate in a wide variety of service-learning opportunities, whether working with earthquake victims in Haiti and those in need in other countries, or with underserved communities closer to home.

Calvin trained us to fulfill our Christian vocations and to be agents of renewal in the world. Having a diverse understanding of the world has helped us live out this purpose. In closing, we pose the question: How are we to welcome the stranger if we can’t communicate with them? If we can’t understand their perspective or experience? Feeling without understanding is at best hollow charity; at worst, an expression of cultural superiority rooted in laziness—or, worse yet, arrogance.

We write from a place of deep gratitude for lessons learned in our own education and out of concern for future generations of Calvin students. To close, we echo the statements found on page 5 of “From Every Nation”:

"We envision a kingdom community in which cultural diversity is seen as normal; a Christian “family” “that transcends ethnic, cultural, racial, and class boundaries: a communion of saints … It is the biblical vision of Pentecost rather than the vision of Babel."

We wish to see Calvin succeed in its mission for diversity and inclusion in the future.

We, the undersigned