Understanding Humanity: UCI’s School of Humanities’s Language Requirement

University of California, Irvine’s School of Humanities requires all its students to take at least 2 years (six quarters) of a second language, building on top of the 1 year that UCI’s general education requires from students. This Language Other than English (LOTE) requirement is the only other requirement from the School of Humanities besides the full year of Humanities Core (for those entering as a first year). Also known as 6 classes that focus on literature, composition, philosophy and history for those who join as transfers or add/switch into the school of humanities. This is also the source of many complaints for Humanities students who believe that the two year requirement is too much work: many students choose not to major in the humanities because of LOTE, choosing to minor instead or face complications with graduating on time because they haven’t completed their second year of language. But I think the two-year language requirement is justified.

Humanities is defined as “the academic discipline that studies aspects of human society and culture”. As humanities students, we engage and analyze different mediums from different cultures to grasp the concept of humanity. An important part of society and culture is language. America is privileged: as a leader and central figure in world politics and economics, it has had little need to enforce a second language policy because English is widely used and spoken in the world. Amelia Friedman from The Atlantic reported “only 7% of college students in America are enrolled in a language course.” The lack of interest and value in second languages can also be seen in the defunding of 651 foreign language programs across college campuses  from 2013-2016 (Montlaur, nytimes.com). Despite the growing need to foster understanding and unity between different communities, Americans are not interested in putting in the effort to communicate and comprehend; we rely on others to do the hard work for us, choosing instead to depend on translated works.

As a humanities student, you are trying to understand what makes people human and what humanity means. To do that, learning another language is crucial. Reading literature and watching films about different cultures can only get you so far: part of understanding culture is understanding and identifying the nuances in languages, most of which gets lost in translation. Take Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” as an example: publications of the novel translated the first line as “Mother died today” until 1988 when Matthew Ward kept “Maman” instead of Mother (Bloom, thenewyorker). The word maman has a “touch of softness and warmth” that neither mother nor mom conveys, hinting at the relationship the main character had with his mother and at his emotional and psychological state. If the translators kept “mother” instead of “maman,” most Americans would have continued to have a limited understanding of the character, misjudging him to be cold and emotionless. But having additional knowledge of the context and nuance of the word adds to the complexity of the novel and the environment it captures.

How can we call ourselves humanities students if we expect other cultures and countries to understand us but refuse to reciprocate? If we are only looking at the world through the lens of English, we are taking other cultures and molding it to our expectations and norms, limiting our view and understanding of the world. It’s impossible to learn every language and two years of language is a small requirement, merely a peek at another culture. But even with that small glimpse, we can better understand other people, other cultures and add to the knowledge of what makes humans human. Connotations and nuances of other cultures fade during the process of translation and if we continuously ignore that fact, not only are we dismissing the importance of languages other than English, but we are also consciously narrowing our understanding of humanity. 

 

Header Credit: Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Article References: America’s Lacking Education Skills by Amelia Friedman, The Atlantic

Do You Speak My Language? You Should by Bénédicte de Montlaur, New York Times

Lost in Translation: What the First Line of “The Stranger” Should Be by Ryan Bloom, The New Yorker