Last year I wrote a paper about services for non-English-speaking patrons in public libraries. As I studied the history of the library’s relationship with languages, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing from the library and information science curriculum: a foreign language requirement.
While my school hadn’t made foreign language proficiency a requirement, perhaps other programs had. I quickly concluded that my program was not the outlier; some cursory searching showed that foreign language requirements are rare for library and information science programs.
This wasn’t always the case, though. Melvil Dewey proposed in 1887 that librarians should prepare for the profession with study in both language and comparative literature (Fisher & Beck 45). In the 1900s to the 1930s, proficiency in two foreign languages was typically required of graduate degree candidates in any field, and the post-World War II era was considered a “golden age” of foreign language study (Fisher & Beck 41).
So why are there so few library science programs with foreign language requirements today? As English appeared to become an “international tongue” due to the United States’ leadership in science and technology, educators questioned the necessity of foreign language study (Fisher & Beck 41). As a result, foreign language requirements have been purged from graduate programs since the mid-twentieth century (Fisher & Beck 42). Fisher and Beck wrote in 1978 that, “most library schools have, in fact, eliminated the language requirement for either admission to, or graduation from, their programs” (45).
What I find interesting, though, is that in the period in which Fisher & Beck wrote about a decrease in foreign language requirements, linguistic diversity in the United States was uncharacteristically low. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of foreign born people in the United States rose 8.2% (Rumbaut & Massey 142). Given this demographic shift, it may be time to consider bringing foreign languages back to library and information science programs.
As more library job listings feature the phrase “bilingual preferred,” it’s not hard to see why many library professionals are taking the initiative to work on their language skills, but a competitive edge in the job market is far from the only reason we should reevaluate library schools’ attitudes toward foreign language study. Aidy So wrote a compelling post on why librarians should make the effort to learn a foreign language, but I’m going to go one step further and propose that we have a professional responsibility to take up language study.
I would like to see this dedication to inclusion and diversity expressed in the form of foreign language proficiency requirements, but until that happens, the onus is on us to make our patrons and colleagues feel more welcomed and to develop better foreign language resources. Even in 1978, Fisher & Beck suggested that librarians had a responsibility to learn a language, regardless of degree requirements (40). Fortunately, there are a number of resources for learning foreign languages independently. This article from U.S. News & World Report covers a number of options for learning a foreign language online, including many free options. Mango, described on their website as a “PhD-created, linguist-approved language-learning software,” offers instruction in over 70 languages and is available in many public libraries. If you prefer to practice your speaking skills face-to-face, language departments in universities often have informal clubs for speakers of different abilities to converse. Although our programs may not require foreign language proficiency to graduate, we shouldn’t consider that an excuse not to take the initiative ourselves.
Does your program require foreign language proficiency for graduation? Do you think it should? Have you used any online language tools? How has knowing or not knowing a foreign language affected your performance as a library professional? Tell us in the comments!
Beck, William J, and Suzanne B Fisher. “Implications Of The Foreign Language Requirement For Library Schools.” Journal Of Education For Librarianship 19.1 (1978): 40-54.Information Science & Technology Abstracts (ISTA). Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
Rumbaut, Rubén G., and Douglas S. Massey. “Immigration & Language Diversity In The United States.” Daedalus 142.3 (2013): 141. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.