Language Requirements in International Relations

Language training has been much on my mind lately.  I recently read Benny Lewis’ book Fluent in 3 Months, and it has inspired me to refocus my own efforts.  Lewis is a self-trained polyglot who speaks 11 languages fluently and another dozen or so to some degree, but only began learning new languages as an adult after failing multiple times as a student.  I found this inspirational myself, as I’ve studied five languages to some degree over the years (including 3 years of formal french and 5 months living in french-speaking countries) and yet am fluent in none of them, and feel tremendous shame when I travel and am forced to communicate in English beyond some basic pleasantries.  Furthermore, we require our undergraduates in IR to study a language through the intermediate level, and yet very few of the faculty can claim fluency in a language themselves.

So one of my summer projects is working on my best language, French, to try to bring it up to the B2 level of fluency (as defined by the CEFR levels).  I’m doing this through a combination of web sites and programs (duolingo, memrise, busuu, anki), review of old course materials, and consumption of native media (books and movies in french that I already am familiar with in english, news reports, podcasts, etc).  I’ve also arranged with a couple of friends who speak french to some degree that we will only communicate in french for the time being.

All of this language study has raised larger questions for me about the role of language training in international relations.  To what extent, if any, should language training be considered an essential part of earning a degree in international relations?

Lets take an instrumentalist approach (acknowledging that there are many non-job related reasons for language study). Clearly language proficiency is not a requirement for academic success, as many IR PhDs are monoglots and this has not hampered their research output or teaching.  And when data is only available in another language, co-authorship with another scholar is always an option.  But the vast majority of our students are not going to become academics (for simple reasons of job availability if not others), so this line of argument falls short.

As for other jobs, it is unclear to what extent language training makes students more employable (barring language-specific jobs such as translation). In a 2013 survey commissioned by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, 96% of employers surveyed indicated that they considered comfort working with people of diverse backgrounds to be very (63%) or fairly (36%) important; 55% cited the importance of knowledge of global cultures and systems (16% very important; 39% fairly important).  Only 43% called for a greater emphasis on colleges training their students to be proficient in a foreign language (with 18% wanting less emphasis on this).

There are, of course, limitations in extrapolating from this data. The survey covered a broad range of employers, many of which might be of little interest to IR students.  Plus respondents were not ranking their level of interest in each of the different skills; it may be easy to say that languages and intercultural competence is desirable when there are no limits on the number of skills to select.  I can add some anecdotal data as well: in interviews I did with several internationally-oriented NGOs in the DC area a few years back, employers were indifferent to language skills in their new hires, as any such needs could be outsourced rather easily.  Someone with excellent language skills would not be prized, for example, over an english-only speaker with better communication abilities.

So where does this leave us?  For me, it raises questions of whether language study is a net positive benefit for the employability of our graduates in IR fields.  Given that a serious language requirement eats up anywhere from 4 to 8 semesters (as at Tufts) of study, there are tradeoffs in requiring students to focus on a language rather than other skills or content courses. My own inclination is still to support language requirements, but I would be eager to see some data on the impacts they have on IR graduates specifically.




One thought on “Language Requirements in International Relations

  1. I’m biased, but I would say that foreign language proficiency (any level beyond knowing only “bonjour” and “eww ay lay twa-let?”) helps signal to employers that a person is more comfortable working with people of diverse backgrounds and has more knowledge of global cultures and systems than someone who lacks any second language capability at all. It might not be the particular language itself or even the proficiency level that is of importance to employers. I have heard something similar from our study abroad staff, but again this is anecdotal.

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