By Sam Margolin, Staff Writer
Starting in the fall of 2018, USM will again offer various degree programs in foreign language such as bachelor of arts in Linguistics, with French and Spanish Concentrations as well as minors in both Spanish and French. Other regularly offered courses that have been returned or strengthened include Latin, German, Italian and Chinese. Some of these degree programs, classes, and professors became unavailable as a result of the budgetary and retrenchment crisis of 2014. The Linguistics department has now absorbed the foreign language programs and oversees the hiring and curriculum developments. New experimental language programs such as Wabanaki and Somali will also be available through a new Critical Languages Department. Critical language is the term used to describe the process of hiring local multilingual community members as educators to serve both students and themselves. By using local educators, colleges can offer professors who have first-hand cultural and language knowledge as well as connect and educate those community members about teaching professionally.
In recent issues of the Free Press, intercultural connections have been highlighted as an important tool in the arsenal of the modern college student. The ability to connect and understand another person’s background and point of view allows people to adopt new ideologies and learn new skills. How someone connects to and understands their environment and their community has a direct effect on how they treat that environment and that community. In order for students to respect and accept each other’s differences, they must first be given the opportunity to connect with a new culture and possess the tools to decipher and translate words and social norms. Without the use of language, cultural connections have no chance of conveying meaning in a deep and accurate sense.
Universities and colleges within the United States have usually had a very steady rise in foreign language classes and programs. According to a report conducted by the Modern Language Association in 2016, enrollment in language courses other than English between 2013 and 2016 fell by 9.2 percent. There had been a sustained growth since 1980 with one exception of decline in 1995. American Sign Language, Arabic and Korean were some of languages to show increased enrolment, leaving some of the most common languages, Spanish and French, displaced. This trend can be seen on college campuses around the country and makes it difficult for Americans to become multilingual. America is falling even further behind in the race to multicultural and linguistic understanding.
In a 2012 New York Times article entitled, “Budget-Cutting Colleges Bid Some Languages Adieu” by Lisa Foderaro, she writes about the cutting of foreign language programs and it’s deep impact on universities, especially liberal arts colleges that pride themselves on inclusivity and community values. The paradox that emerges reveals how crucial foreign language programs are to higher education. Foderaro writes, “many schools are eliminating language degrees and graduate programs just as they begin to embrace an international mission: opening campuses abroad, recruiting students from overseas and talking about graduating citizens of the world.” This notion of tuning students into not just American professionals, but “citizens of the world” goes hand in hand with the modern landscape of culture.
The idea of respect is attached heavily to language. By speaking a greeting or phrase in someone else’s native tongue shows them that you value their culture and have taken time to try and learn about their viewpoint. This respect through cultural connection can help students become more in tune with the world around them. Dana McDaniel, the Chairperson of the Department of Linguistics, has played a pivotal role in providing a departmental home for foreign language. McDaniel outlines how essential language learning is to community connections and the level of respect that must first be reached.
“When people find themselves in a language community that is different from their own, using the language of the community not only improves communication, but also shows respect,” McDaniel said. “In addition, language study gives English speakers a sense of what it’s like to learn a second language, and therefore makes English speakers more understanding toward people who are learning English as a second language.”
Another proponent for the resurgence of the foreign language department is one of its former faculty members and current USM Provost, Jeannine Diddle Uzzi. Provost Uzzi was once a professor of Latin and classics at USM. She now works with department heads, including McDaniel, to help heal and support some of the more affected departments.
Provost Uzzi is also a big supporter of the critical languages program and its potential for USM. “With all the languages spoken in Portland, the world is our oyster. We could offer all kinds of things here.” She also highlights that critical language is fairly inexpensive because it allows part-time and non-traditional faculty to integrate into the classroom. Community outreach becomes the real goal of this program by allowing locals to give and receive education from USM.
“Before think about bringing back foreign language majors in a traditional sense, I want to build a critical languages program,” Said Uzzi. “A critical language program would create meaningful connections between all the different people who speak different languages across Portland and the university.”
Cultural hubs like the one Provost Uzzi describes in the critical languages program has already seen positive feedback from the student body. The multi-cultural center on the Portland campus provides community outreach programs as well as support for the different cultures, nationalities and languages now present in the USM community. Provost Uzzi also points out that global political climates have a huge impact on foreign language and enrollment numbers, and to not offer these crucial tools is doing students a substantial disservice.
“The study of modern language really does follow international current events and trends,” Provost Uzzi said. “That’s why we are seeing such an uptake in programs like Arabic and Russian. So now we are in a time when people want to study languages like Russian again, but we don’t have a Russian program.”
While some departments such as international relations, history and music have foreign languages in their degree requirements, most majors and minors don’t include them at USM. “Nothing helps you better understand English, than learning a language that is not English,” said Provost Uzzi. “For the first time your brain gets some perspective on grammar, syntax, diction and not to mention culture.” Provost Uzzi stated that sometimes foreign language requirements can be hard for students to swallow, especially languages with complex grammar like German or Russian. “A good professor can take that grammar to demonstrate how it impacts culture.” Provost Uzzi points out the importance of drawing conclusions from these cultural signifiers that are embedded within language and applying them to educational and administrative need of a university.