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Princetonians should be multilingual: expand PDF option for language study

Landscape photo of courtyard of old building with people walking in front.
East Pyne Archway.
Zehao Wu / The Daily Princetonian

For students working toward an A.B. degree at Princeton, the foreign language requirement is a core part of their undergraduate education. For those starting at the 101 level, the requirement constitutes an introduction to rigorous language study that will span at least three semesters of college. Though many students test out of intro courses and into intermediate or advanced-level courses, the language requirement ensures meaningful student engagement with a critical field of study. 

However, many Princetonians cease language study after completing the core requirement. In light of a disturbing national trend of institutions of higher learning shifting away from foreign language programs, Princeton should seek to defend the value of language study, encouraging students to pursue advanced language study in multiple languages. Specifically, language classes taken beyond the requirement should have a pass/D/fail (PDF) option. 


In the past decade, foreign language enrollments on the collegiate level have tumbled dramatically. In the half-decade between 2016 and 2021, enrollment declined by 17 percent nationally. This decline was only part of the more severe language enrollment decline of nearly 30 percent between 2009 and 2021. This downward trend has dramatically outstripped even the general decline in college enrollment. In all, 961 language programs have been eliminated nationally, approximately 8.2 percent of all programs at the University level. 

Princeton must be cognizant of the practical implications of this decline in language study. The University’s robust language study options is a decreasingly common stance among U.S. institutions. From 2016 to 2021, universities have eliminated 172 German, 164 French, 105 Chinese, and 80 Arabic programs, two of which — Arabic and Chinese — are State Department critical languages. These languages are essential to recognizing and engaging with an increasingly multilingual and interconnected world. Students who study them grow capable of connecting culturally, acquiring knowledge of customs and values through academic work, and engaging beyond the circumscribed bounds of English knowledge abroad. 

A cross-lingual connection does not merely pertain to going abroad but is incredibly important to engage with an increasingly diverse United States, where some 20 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home. Thus, engaging as a multilingual American in an increasingly multilingual environment is incredibly important. 

Beyond language study’s socio-political implications, Princetonians would be well-served by the opportunity to grow as critical thinkers and learners while studying a second or third language. Presently, the University maintains a high standard for language course rigor. This makes sense to compel students to engage deeply with the content, but those who have already proven their mastery of these skills should be able to engage with additional language courses in a less demanding manner.

Students who have already completed the University language requirement should be able to utilize the PDF option for introductory language courses. Providing this option would ensure that the bar to entry for any given language remains reasonable in light of the increased demands of study as an undergraduate career progresses. The PDF option would limit student concerns about the effects of language courses on their GPA, allaying the fears of students looking at both a highly competitive job market and graduate, law, and medical school admissions environment.

Expanding the availability of the PDF option will not undermine the rigor of introductory language courses. Students working toward fulfilling the undergraduate requirement would still be held to the same standards as before. Preserving the rigor of introductory courses is essential to ensuring a robust foundation for further study; the benefit of increased access ought not come at the expense of entering students. Having PDF students in the class will not affect the experience of students in their first language class, especially since these students have already demonstrated their commitment to the material by enrolling in the class.


Princeton seeks to accomplish a rather noble — and practical — objective by requiring students to study a single foreign language to proficiency. The University should follow this prerogative to its logical conclusion, increasing proficiency in multiple languages — it is both in line with its commitment to service and its fundamental mission as an institution of higher learning.

Aidan Gouley is a freshman from Fairfield, Conn. intending to major in Politics. He is a columnist at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached by email at

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