Foreign language studies booming

According to the Modern Language Association’s preliminary report, enrollment in foreign language studies in the United States fell by 9.2 percent while it increased by over a hundred students at the University of Rhode Island.

As of 2018, URI’s Language Department has over 700 students majoring in a language and the largest German language program in the country. Most language programs across the country have historically focused on preparing students to become teachers of the language. URI’s Language Department recognizes a student’s motivation to be able to use the language for professional or practical purposes and their desire to combine language studies with professional studies.

“We have five cross-departmental programs, that we offer in all of our languages,” Karen DeBruin, department chair of Modern Classical languages and literature at URI said. “They are the International Engineering Program, International Business Program, International Studies and Diplomacy Program, the International Pharmaceutical Sciences Program, and the International Computer Science Program.”

A strong sense of community and support also adds to the strength of their programs.

“We also have strong peer support networks,” DeBruin said. “We have weekly conversation hours that are well attended across all of our languages, we’ve got conversation buddies, like a foreign exchange student, that you can go up and practice your language with and we also have tutors and program ambassadors that do outreach events like on-campus movie nights.”

The department also offers study abroad programs across many languages from summer courses to a year long study.  

“That’s another strength of our department,” DeBruin said. “A lot of schools do provide programs where students are plugged into external third party providers. Direct exchange programs are more work intensive, but the benefits you’ve got are great, like research collaborations and student collaborations.”

The language programs also have proficiency benchmarking. This is for the students to know where they stand in the proficiency scale that goes from novice to superior.

“We don’t talk about fluency anymore, we talk about proficiency,” DeBruin said. “This benchmark gives our students a clear sense of what it takes to be able to speak the language and they’ll have a better idea of what they need to do next to reach a level of proficiency.”  

Intercultural competence is highly valued today. However, the humanities in general has had a decrease in majors, especially after the 2008 recession, and there has been a push nationally for STEM disciplines.

“Universities are becoming almost a professional training ground instead of moving away from the liberal arts education,” Catherine Sama, section head and professor of the Italian program at URI said. “That’s a shame because research has shown that engineering firms and businesses in the STEM disciplines are saying that they need people who are well-rounded educationally in the humanities.”

DeBruin also believes that the nationwide decline for language studies might also be associated with outdated teaching methods and personal inhibitions.

“Many language programs have not adapted quick enough to the students’ desires so they’re still teaching language to be able to read literature, which need not be the end goal for students,” DeBruin said. “Another reason could also be fear of language. Students fear language like they fear math.”