Language study in Wesleyan maintains strong downward trend in national declines

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Students use and develop their Italian language skills through Wesleyan’s study abroad program in Bologna, Italy, designed to complement the rigorous language curriculum offered on campus.

According to the Modern Language Association, foreign language enrollment at colleges and universities nationwide has fallen sharply in recent years, but language studies at Wesleyan are holding up fairly well.

Despite the fact that Wesleyan, unlike the vast majority of our peers, has no language requirements, 60-70% of Wes students choose to study a language other than English. The average student takes around three semesters of language courses, while around 30% pursue studies at advanced levels and 13% study more than one language.

Wesleyan has stepped up its efforts to accommodate students’ interest in language study. With the addition of Hindi-Urdu language courses in fall 2019, Wesleyan now offers comprehensive classroom instruction in 15 different languages ​​– the most of any liberal arts college in the country, tied only with Wellesley College.

The percentage of students choosing language majors (defined as any major that requires a language, which includes the College of Humanities and Art History) has remained fairly stable over the past two decades. Remarkable gains have been seen in the Romance languages ​​in particular, thanks to key curriculum changes and outreach efforts. For example, the number of students majoring in Spanish has tripled over the past 20 years, in stark contrast to the marked nationwide decline of Spanish majors. Meanwhile, at Wesleyan, Italian majors have doubled over this same period, while the number of students attending graduate-level seminaries and studying abroad in Wesleyan’s Romance language programs ( in Bologna, Madrid and Paris) has also increased. Similarly, after changes initiated in 1992, French more than doubled its number of majors in 2007 and has maintained an exceptionally high number ever since.

“It’s very exciting to see such strong enrollment,” said Rob Rosenthal, Interim Vice President and Senior Vice President, Academic Affairs. “Learning a language is a window into another culture, a broadening of our understanding, which is central to our approach to liberal education in Wesleyan.”

The 2018-2019 annual report of the Fries Center for Global Studies notes an interesting trend: the percentage of language students majoring in a STEM field (related to mathematics and natural sciences) has increased significantly, from around 5% in 2002 to 28%. % in 2019.

Associate Professor of Spanish Michael Armstrong Roche has a theory about this trend. In 2016, he expressed concern that “we do not sufficiently explain why the in-depth study of another language and another culture offers rewards (professional and intellectual) beyond the narrowly instrumental ones of to be able to work in another language”. He wrote a list of the top seven reasons “why studying a foreign language is a good idea for every student” based on decades of observing, reading and teaching. The list was incorporated into first- and second-year student orientation materials and posted on the Registrar’s website, and a extended version was adopted and posted on the Fries Center website.

The list provides concise but compelling evidence of how the study of foreign languages ​​can enrich the academic career of any student, regardless of their main intellectual or professional interests. And, as Armstrong Roche explains, it taps into an institutional counter-trend, seen in various vocational schools and even corporate hiring, that recognizes that the intense study of another language, literature, and culture makes much more intellectually agile, professionally adaptable, and communicative people, be they doctors, researchers, administrators or bankers. In other words, the benefits of learning another language extend far beyond the ability to communicate in that language.

Pictured are students taking part in a pétanque tournament in 2014, an extracurricular event organized by the Department of Romance Languages ​​and Literatures.
Almost all Wesleyan language programs teach language, culture, and in many cases literature together, from day one through higher-level seminars. Pictured are students taking part in a pétanque tournament in 2014, an extracurricular event organized by the Department of Romance Languages ​​and Literatures.

Armstrong Roche shared some illustrative examples of this, including the story of a 2015 graduate who double majored in Economics and Hispanic Literatures and Cultures. When, in his senior year, he was offered a position as a financial analyst at Deutsche Bank, he was told that they had decided to hire him for his Hispanic Literatures and Cultures major, rather than his major in economics. Hiring managers said they could teach him what he needed to know about economics in six weeks, but his deep commitment to studying another language, literature and culture convinced them he would be able to. put yourself in the shoes of others and communicate more. effectively in English.

There was also the 2017 graduate who double majored in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and Hispanic Literatures and Cultures, and studied abroad in Wesleyan’s Madrid program. Armstrong Roche said this student described the underlying connections between her two areas of academic interest: she views science as language and language as science. After graduating, she received a Fulbright scholarship to spend a year working on a molecular genetics project at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas (the Spanish National Center for Cancer Research) in Madrid.

Once students are “out the door” with Wesleyan language programs, they are hooked on a distinctive teaching approach. Almost all Wesleyan language programs teach language, culture, and in many cases literature together, from day one through higher-level seminars. Armstrong Roche believes this integrated approach appeals to students because it challenges them intellectually while satisfying their pragmatic desire to master another language.

“At Wesleyan, we figured out how to make our commitment to the liberal arts job: Students love to wrestle with complex texts and cultural issues while continue to work on language proficiency throughout college,” he explained. Many other schools have separated advanced language skills from the humanities, creating separate foreign language streams for professions or using classes on other countries’ pop culture in English to boost enrollment. At the Wesleyan Department of Romance Languages ​​and Literatures, all seminars are normally given in French, Italian and Spanish rather than English.

Wesleyan and Vassar students studying in the Vassar-Wesleyan program in Paris are pictured on a Bateau-Mouche last year.  In the foreground, fifth from the right, is Associate Professor of French Catherine Poisson.
Wesleyan and Vassar students studying in the Vassar-Wesleyan program in Paris are pictured on a Bateau-Mouche last year. In the foreground, fifth from the right, is Associate Professor of French Catherine Poisson. (Photo c/o Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris)

Wesleyan also implemented other strategies to further develop the study of languages. An important new initiative is Cultures and Languages ​​through the Curriculum (CLAC), which is overseen and supported by the Fries Center. First offered at Wesleyan in the spring of 2019, CLAC is based on the idea that students benefit from opportunities to apply their linguistic knowledge in a variety of curricular contexts across multiple disciplines. The most common model is that English lessons in any subject can be accompanied by CLAC lessons – usually 0.5 credit, pass-fail – in which students can read and discuss the subject in another language . For example, Steve Angle, professor of philosophy, Mansfield professor of East Asian studies and director of the Fries Center for Global Studies, teaches a course on Chinese philosophy, as well as a companion CLAC course in in which students read Chinese philosophers and also discuss what they have learned in the language.

“CLAC courses bring together international students who are native speakers of the language with English speakers who are learning the language. For all, they enrich the study of the subject,” said Angle, who noted that 10 CLAC courses are offered in the 2019-2020 academic year in disciplines including philosophy, history, literature and film, and languages ​​including Chinese, German, Russian, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Latin and Spanish.

While the Fries Center’s annual report outlines a number of encouraging trends in the study of languages ​​at Wesleyan, it notes that “of course we cannot rest on our laurels” and that the center staff, as well as fellow faculty in all languages, continue to explore all kinds of trends and challenges to “continue to make Wesleyan a national leader in language education.”

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