By: Jonathan Levin  | 

A University with No Languages Lacks a Soul

Imagine attending a university that lacks foreign language instruction, with the exception of a widely detested asynchronous program to teach one language. 

There’s no need to look for some random community college in the middle of nowhere. There’s no need to imagine. Just look here — this is the situation at Yeshiva University.

In a city with over 600 languages spoken, in a city with nearly 2 million Spanish speakers and in a city where 48% of people speak languages other than English, YU students have been deprived of the ability to learn a language other than their own. In a school that prides itself on teaching Torah Umadda and providing a meaningful liberal arts education, YU students seeking to learn languages might as well just download Duolingo. 

Less than ten years ago, students on both Beren and Wilf had access to a large variety of language options. You could take Spanish. You could take French. You could take classes on Arabic or Yiddish. YU even offered classes on Greek and Latin!

Today, YU offers no such courses. When I asked to take Arabic during my first academic advising session, my advisor laughed at me. “We don’t offer these courses anymore,” I was told. The last non-Hebrew class offered was in the Spring of 2021 and the last in-person language courses that weren’t Hebrew were taught before the pandemic, before the time of all current students.

Silently and quietly, YU has slowly and methodologically eliminated all language offerings. Even Hebrew, a language so important to our religion and culture, has not been immune to YU’s purge of all foreign language instruction, and was made asynchronous starting in the Fall of 2022. Now, the program is hated nearly universally by both Beren and Wilf students, and students feel that the program is lacking and can’t effectively teach students.

Studying languages is important. It is not only integral to the idea of becoming a well-rounded and educated person, an underlying concept behind Torah Umadda, but it is also extremely important as a skill in the workforce. In a country where 68 million speak a language other than English at home — a number that increased 300% over the past few decades — and in a global world, knowledge of foreign languages is critical for everyone from doctors, to lawyers, to psychologists, to teachers. In short, it is critical for all of YC and SCW’s main majors, as well as virtually any Syms student working in business.

It is also extremely important for pursuing higher education. A few weeks ago, a professor in the English department told me that whenever they speak with students interested in pursuing PhDs, they advise them to go learn a romance language elsewhere, as it is integral to their mode of study. 

There is a high demand for learning languages at YU. There are Esperanto, Yiddish and French Clubs, a Semitic Languages Society, and a Spanish club that is currently forming. An informal survey I ran of nearly 70 students found that nearly 95% wanted YU to offer additional language options, with large percentages expressing interest in taking classes on languages like Spanish, Arabic, Yiddish and French. Students want to learn. But they can’t. 

There has been much talk of the decline of Torah Umadda at YU, and there is no greater display of that than the decline of languages. Speaking to The Commentator, Professor Jeffery Freedman said that these changes were coming from the “top-down,” i.e., made by the upper administration without consultation with faculty.

“The university has changed in really radical ways, [and] those changes have occurred without meaningful consultation,” Freedman later said.

I will graduate soon. Despite all my gratitude to YU for everything it has to offer and for everything I gained, the one opportunity I wish I had was the ability to take foreign language instruction. I can’t speak Spanish. I most certainly can’t speak Arabic. Yet despite that, I am more fortunate than most, as I am of the last cohort of students who were able to take in-person Hebrew classes, where I gained skills I use daily.

The same professor who advises students aspiring for PhDs to take language classes elsewhere also advised me to do so post-graduation. This way, I will be able to take classes that weren’t available in my years of college; classes my tens of thousands in tuition and thousands of dollars in debt couldn’t get me — classes not available at the flagship Jewish university.

 As Jews, different languages are tied into our way of life, and upon entering the Beit Midrash in Glueck or 245, you will hear the music of the different languages used in the study of our religion and of ourselves as a people. Yet despite that, upon looking at the variety of language options at the flagship Jewish university, you might as well have been at a community college in the middle of nowhere.

Students at YU want to learn languages. There is demand for it. We will take it, and we will learn. Class enrollment may not be large (though YU could address the issue by replacing the Hebrew requirement with a general language requirement, an idea that my survey found some support for, or by allowing languages to once again fulfill certain core requirements) but we are people of the book — languages are important to us as people and are at the core of what a university is. A university that lacks foreign language instruction lacks a soul; a university can’t cut foreign language instruction and expect to take liberal arts seriously. 

YU must reset its approach to teaching languages. I call on YU and its leadership, Dean Bacon, Provost Botman, and President Berman, to address student complaints and repair the fundamentally broken Hebrew system so that students can actually learn, and to add foreign language instruction so students can develop themselves as people and be prepared for what the world has to offer. A Spanish language course would be a nice start.