While language skills have traditionally been a prerequisite to study abroad, Stanford is gradually weakening the language requirements of its Bing Overseas Study Program (BOSP). Of the 12 quarter-long study abroad programs offered by BOSP, eight have language requirements for participation. However, these language requirements are not always strictly enforced and may apply differently based on the quarter and on students’ majors.
According to the BOSP website, there is no language requirement for fall or winter to attend Berlin, and spring quarter only requires GERLANG 1. Florence waives any requirement for winter and spring quarters, while Paris waives the requirement for winter STEM majors participating in the Principles of Biochemistry course. These standards contrast with those of Madrid and Santiago, which require a full year of Spanish to attend in any quarter.
Other options for fulfilling language requirements, including passing a placement test rather than actually taking language classes at Stanford, are detailed in BOSP’s FAQ page. Yet according to Ramón Saldívar, the director of BOSP, language practice is just one factor in being prepared for a quarter abroad.
“For any overseas program, clearly the more facility you have with all aspects of a different cultural situation, you’ll be better off,” Saldívar said. “You’ll learn more, understand more of what you’re seeing and just have a richer cultural experience. That’s true not just for language but all aspects of a culture.”
Lowering requirements to increase accessibility
Some argue that having fewer language requirements widens accessibility to study abroad programs. Engineering majors may have stringent requirements that cannot be fulfilled abroad, while the sheer number of courses necessary for graduation makes language study difficult. Likewise, athletes must stay on campus for training at various points of the year, which impedes attendance of abroad programs.
According to Saldívar, BOSP wants to have as many students going abroad as possible, and more flexible requirements can boost this goal.
“It’s not that the Language Center or BOSP or the French department or anybody else has decided it’s a good idea for students to do less foreign language study,” Saldívar said. “No. Given what students are interested in and their desire for going overseas, it’s about how we can help them meet both of those challenges.”
The absence of a prerequisite proved useful for Dana C. Ritchie ’16, who attended Berlin in fall 2014. As an athlete for two years and product design major, Ritchie was unable to incorporate German into her schedule and had no language experience before going abroad. Although initially intimidated by the idea of immersing herself in such an unfamiliar environment, Ritchie felt that the experience was more valuable because she was forced so drastically out of her comfort zone.
“I really enjoyed having the chance to study [German] all the time,” Ritchie said. “In navigating your way, you are completely immersed in the language … I’m really happy there was no language requirement, because I don’t think I could have gone abroad had there been.”
Since her return, Ritchie has taken up a German minor. Still, she notes that many engineering majors nevertheless struggle to attend abroad programs or immerse themselves fully in the language.
“I wish engineers had more of a chance to go abroad,” Ritchie said. “Having the experience of being so completely out of your comfort zone, but then picking [the language] up as you go, was one of the best three months of my life.”
According to Saldívar, the growth of science, technology, engineering and math at Stanford has been responsible for much of the relaxing in language requirements through BOSP, as these majors tend to have higher unit requirements and thus less room to study languages. The Berlin program, for example, attracts a high number of engineers.
Impact of language ability on the abroad experience
Berlin has a reputation for its English-friendly environment, which perhaps encourages non-German speakers to feel comfortable attending. Ritchie contrasted her experience in Berlin to time spent in France, when she was careful not to speak English in lines for clubs or in public generally. In Berlin, transportation was easy to follow as a non-native speaker, and she felt English was generally accepted – though she added that she was exposed to mostly American-friendly communities while there.
Others question the value of the abroad experience in the absence of a language background. Nicholas Freybler ’16, a student ambassador for the Berlin program,* noted that some students go abroad for a “break” of sorts from the intense quarter system. Some may take a lighter course load to focus on wandering amongst cafes, museums and the club scene. Perhaps because of this, attendees view the language as secondary to fun exploration – yet Freybler argues that knowing the language is actually more helpful if one seeks pleasurable adventures rather than academic intensity.
“Even if your intentions to go abroad are to have fun, take a quarter off and experience a different kind of nightlife … it’s so much easier to do that if you know the language,” said Freybler, whose commentary does not represent or reflect the perspective of BOSP.
“You can get in so many more places,” he added. “If that’s your reasoning – and not everyone wants to do that – why not take advantage of that? [With the language] you might be able to enrich that [experience] even more.”
The language barrier also may cause a social divide amongst attendees themselves. Inexperienced speakers must enroll in an accelerated German for the duration of their stay, with separate courses for more advanced speakers. From a practical standpoint, the two groups spend much of their time apart from one another. This also puts pressure on those who speak the language to translate for others. When Freybler attended the Berlin program in spring of 2014, he was one of five or six students with more than a quarter of language experience.
“You’d go to a restaurant, and if there was a waiter who actually didn’t speak English – which was very rare – I had to be a sort of mediator for my friends with whom I was eating, and the establishment itself,” Freybler said. “Which was kind of frustrating in certain contexts because it didn’t seem like I should have had to do that.”
To participate in the Madrid program, students sign a “Spanish-only” pledge to encourage language immersion. Still, the temptation to speak English around other Stanford students is strong, and participants say compliance with the pledge is often low.
“Apparently, in past years with a higher requirement, people keep to the pledge a little better so that it wasn’t so painful to listen to each other,” said Mariah Oxley ’16, who attended Madrid in winter of 2014.
Classroom vs. immersion experience
Oxley took two quarters of Spanish at Stanford before studying in Madrid: one grammar-based class and one conversational class. She agreed that some classroom instruction in foreign language is important, but did not particularly enjoy the experience. Instead, she has found studying abroad both through BOSP and other programs such as Haas Fellowships have provided a more engaging experience.
“Through the immersion of going abroad, I think I’m able to speak and converse a lot better than [through] quizzes and homework assignments,” Oxley said.
While abroad, small interactions add up in a way impossible to imitate in the classroom. From friendly moments with waiters to chance conversations in line, Freybler believes attendees receive a much more nuanced perspective of the country’s actual culture and people when able to engage in casual conversation. For Freybler, the opportunity of living abroad with so few obligations is too valuable to push language to the wayside.
“I think it’s a waste to go and not have even a small grasp on the language, enough to get around and have even just an interesting conversation while waiting for the bus,” Freybler said. “You’re never going to get that again … this is your only chance to prepare a bit, properly, and spend ten weeks with almost no restrictions or setbacks.”