Elimination of university foreign language course requirements.

Many universities require that applicants for admission have taken a foreign language in high school.  If they have not, then the universities commonly require that they take some foreign language courses as part of a general requirement for all bachelor degree programs.  I suspect that such a universal requirement prevents many talented people from achieving their educational goals.

To me, the current foreign language requirement discriminate against aphantasics who do not create auditory images and people who do not foresee a need for a foreign language in their career goals.

To me, foreign language requirements should be restricted to students who wish to work in a field where capability in a foreign language is needed.  For all other students, foreign language courses should be optional.  Students, in general, can get a broad education by taking a wide variety of other courses during their first and second years.

When I wrote about this issue to the head of academic programs in the office of the President of the University of California system I received the following rationalized justification is response:

“Faculty at the University establish minimum admission criteria to ensure every student offered admission has the foundational skills necessary to succeed and persist to the Bachelor’s degree. While campuses review applicants for minimum systemwide requirements, no applicant is denied without receiving a full application review. Students who are missing a requirement but are otherwise qualified and competitive for a campus may gain admission under the University’s Admission by Exception policy. This policy provides a means to identify students who do not meet technical requirements for eligibility but who demonstrate strong likelihood of success

at UC or exceptional potential to contribute to the University or the State of California. Exceptions can be made for numerous reasons, including for physical or learning disabilities or conditions such as aphantasia, that affect students’ ability to meet UC eligibility requirements.”

I would like to see aphantasics take a leadership in fighting against this type of discrimination.  Some actions that could occur include:

1.  Challenging the requirements as being an illegal form of discrimination

2.  Conducting research on how such requirements adversely affect aphantasics and others whose careers will not depend upon knowledge of a foreign language.

3.  The adverse financial and time consumption aspects of having to take such courses.

4.  The learning improvements of having only interested students attending such courses courses.

5.  Studies of how many young people avoid going to college because they are discouraged by such foreign language requirements.

6.  Develop ways for universities to publicize to high school counselors the alternatives that might be available.

7.  Etc.

My deceased wife, who was fluent in seven languages, was almost amazed that someone who does not create auditory images was required to study a foreign language.  She quickly realized that it would be almost impossible for me to ever become fluent in a foreign language.

She raised the question as to whether universities keep pushing the requirement as a form of guaranteed employment for foreign language teachers.  She had also found that  the learning by the interested students was hindered by uninterested students being in the same classes.



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Total Comments (4)

Hi Burt,

I realize and acknowledge your frustration. I’m just not sure whether I support your premises and the claims built on those premises. As to the list of actions you’re proposing, I must say points 3 to 7 would apply to pretty much every applicant, while I would recommend to take step 2 before step 1. Any findings of aphantasia being an obstacle in the process of learning a foreign language would very much support your point.

Personally, I’m not convinced aphantasia makes it “almost impossible to become fluent in a foreign language”. Just have a look at this forum, there are many participants who are not native english speakers and they express themselves quite well. Aphantasiacs are present in pretty much all jobs and professions. Many are musicians, a skill that basically requires comparable assets and abilities as learning a foreign language.

I would love to hear from other members though, what’s your experiences and ideas?



I completely agree with your skepticism about aphantasia being a barrier to language learning. I’m certainly near the bottom of visualization ability and I wouldn’t say it was aphantasia that gave me any specific trouble. I never got past a few years into learning Japanese, and aphantasia definitely made learning Kanji (symbolic written language) tricky, but the same techniques and adjustments I used for everything applied just as well to language. Memorization is terrible in my experience, but with practice and use I can automate the reaction and perform just as well (if not better) than classmates. I found an absolute ton of value in even attempting a second language too, so much so that I’ve taken Japanese at 3 different schools (never advanced, but just to try it out again). It helps absolute loads with information processing and understanding language. Even made my spelling and speaking better by hinting patterns and rules I’d not discovered in English.

All that said, I do understand why forced second language requirements could be limiting, more so for those homeschooled or with language conditions than for those with aphantasia (or at least those with my style of it). I do think requiring some advanced language knowledge is good, but I could see language theory or descriptivist vocal training or something along that line being just as valid as another language. Definitely an interesting topic!

I was frustrated in Spanish classes in junior high and high school. I was blazing along learning the vocabulary and grammar rules and it felt very easy to me. But the class bogged down a couple of chapters in with the teacher assisting the slowest kids, so I spent all my time doing my science and math homework. I tried the Duolingo app and ran into the same problem. Endless repetition of introductory material and very slow advancement. 

My memory works best through writing. Writing stuff down somehow locks it into the core. Not through visualization or listening but through the mechanical motions of my hands. 

Well, as someone whose degree is in a foreign language I am going to disagree. It’s not impossible to learn a language, it just takes a different approach. I also disagree with the requirement being useless unless you are intending to use a foreign language. Even though in my opinion college language classes will never get any individual to fluency what learning a foreign language to any degree does is teach someone about other cultures and opens someone to those opportunities. And i think that is an important part of college education is opening your mind to another culture outside your own.

I have a different experience with foreign languages than most aphants.

I started learning to write software at just eleven years old, before the IBM PC even existed.  In high school, I studied German.  Probably because a spoken language isn’t that different from a software language (other than being, well, spoken), I personally found learning German rules to be intuitive.  Thirty-five years later, I still remember all of the syntax rules, though I’ve forgotten most of the vocabulary, due to lack of practice.  But, due to being an aphant, my pronunciation was always bad (I sounded far too similar to English), since I can’t repeat in my head how I’ve heard things pronounced to imitate the correct sound, nor recognize when I say things wrong.  So, it turned out I’m excellent at learning to read and write languages, and understanding them is easy for me, but pronunciation is an endless struggle for me.

A year out of high school, I volunteered to be a missionary in another country.  When they sent me to Mexico, I spent two months beforehand learning Spanish.  In that short time, I became very comfortable communicating in Spanish.  I quickly become basically “fluent, but with a bad accent” :p

I’ve continued speaking Spanish, and despite no formal studies, I read and write it better than many native speakers, and I understand it spoken extremely well.  But, like with German, even after 34 years speaking the language, and knowing all the rules well, and married to a woman who speaks it as her primary language, I still sound far too “gringo”.  Since finding out at the beginning of 2021 that I have aphantasia, I finally know why, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s absurdly hard for me to improve my pronunciation.  It also explains why I have such difficulty acting as an interpreter between English and Spanish, unless they do it more sentence-by-sentence.  When interpreting is paragraph-by-paragraph, it’s impossible to not start to lose the content of what was said.

When I ran into a more severe block is sign language.  Two years ago, I started working for a company that provides interpreters for calls between the deaf and hearing (acting as their software architect).  They provided me with weekly classes in sign language.  Besides the fact that I have to put in extra effort to learn new signs, since I can’t see them in my head, understanding sign turned out to be a nightmare.  Since my mind is trained since birth at extracting meaning from what is said, so I can understand languages (even though I can’t repeat in my mind the sounds of what was said), I don’t have an equivalent way wired into my head to extract sign language.  As they quickly move their hands, I immediately get lost.  I’m sure I could get it eventually, but it would probably take an absurdly long time.

It turns out children with autism or similar learn better with “mixed media” communication.  I suspect that is true of aphants as well.  For example, an elementary school class has been taught where communication is done spoken and in sign language simultaneously.  The communication and understanding by the autistics was shown to be significantly better (with no negatives for the other children).  That proved there’s a good way towards an integration of “normal”, autistic, aphants, deaf, and blind students into a common learning environment (and it would help foreign students as well!).  But for that to work, the language needs to be “iconic” (obvious gestures, like used in American sports).  The downside is that American Sign Language and others over time have become less “iconic”, which means that they are non-intuitive for novices.  And ASL doesn’t really have any technical words, so there’s a huge number of words where they instead have to spell it out letter by letter in English (which means it’s not really sign language at that point, it’s English).  That’s very unfortunate.  The only “iconic” sign languages I know of are Plains Indian sign language (long out of use), and International Sign Language (very uncommon).

The fix would be a new international sign language that isn’t meant just for the deaf, but also autistics, aphants, etc.  The best starting point would probably be basing it on the words of the language Toki Pona.  It’s a language with just 137 words that allows basic communication.  Giving that a set of iconic signs would create a starting point that would give aphants a way to learn ASL and other sign languages later, since the mind is already trained on how to extract meaning from sign as it happens, as happens with spoken languages.

There is already a sign language for Toki Pona, but I suspect it isn’t very iconic: