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Language programs flourish

Marcela Berrios | Friday, September 29, 2006

French is one of the official languages of the United Nations (UN), but 500 million people worldwide speak Spanish, a figure eclipsed only by the billion people who speak Chinese.

With so many good reasons to learn a foreign language, it is no wonder Notre Dame’s enrollment in non-English language courses has steadily increased over the last few years.

“Flourishing language and literature programs require four elements,” said Mark Roche, dean of the College of Arts and Letters. “First, excellent language instruction; second, superb study abroad opportunities; third, course offerings in language, literature and culture; and fourth, a sense of community fostered by appropriate intellectual and social events, including opportunities to speak the language outside the classroom.”

In all but one of the past four years, student interest in language learning has risen 27 percent, while student participation in study abroad programs in non-English speaking countries has steadily increased 15 percent since 2002.

The high student evaluations of foreign language courses and the competitiveness for placements in study abroad programs in non-English speaking countries are consistent with Roche’s optimism regarding Notre Dame’s rising bilingualism.

Junior Joanna Mangeney supports the foreign language requirement for Arts and Letters majors.

“I’m in favor of the University’s foreign language requirement,” Mangeney said. “I think it’s an important component of a well rounded liberal arts education.”

Matt Schaefer, a junior chemistry student, questioned why he was required to take courses that had little to do with his major.

“While I thoroughly enjoy my immersion in the Spanish language, I don’t necessarily see why science majors should be required to take language courses,” Schaefer said. “I mean … business students don’t have to, and they actually interact with people in their workplaces.”

Many students choose to major in a foreign language in addition to another field of study, such as business or political science, knowing that command of a second language may lead to more opportunities in the United States and around the world.

“Spanish allows you to communicate with the other half of our hemisphere, not to mention the fastest growing minority in our own country,” said Josh Kempf, a sophomore who expects to study abroad in Latin American. “It’s useful for business, travel and life in general,” he said.

On average, there are 260 undergraduate Spanish majors in Notre Dame, making it the most popular foreign language among students.

Languages like Chinese and Japanese are also becoming a common choice among students, as they are helpful in the global business arena.

“The fastest areas of language to see growth over the last few years are Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Irish,” said Lionel Jensen, chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature.

Since his arrival in 2000, Jensen has seen the enrollments in Chinese classes quadruple, to the extent that temporary instructors are being brought in to meet students’ demands.

Just this year, over 20 students interested in Chinese could not enroll in classes because the sections were full.

“Notre Dame’s incoming students are evermore aware of the complexity of today’s politics and economics and the critical role that Asia and the Middle East play,” Jensen said. “Without China’s financing, the war in Iraq and the American housing market, to mention a few, would not be a reality. Ireland is the single most successful and fastest-growing economy in the European Union. Our students are aware of these facts, and they want to learn these languages.”

Sophomore Tatiane Hsu, recognizes how strategic Chinese is in any global market, but she’s also drawn to the language itself.

“Since both my parents are from Taiwan, Chinese is a big part of my heritage, and I really want to learn how to speak it,” Hsu said.

The Italian program has also seen significant growth over the last five years.

The number of students enrolled in Italian courses – either through the foreign language requirement or as a declared major – was 180 in 1997, whereas there are 438 students currently learning the language, an increase of approximately 143 percent, according to Christian Moevs, an associate professor and liaison to the Chair for the Program in Italian studies.

The program’s popularity may be due in part to the student body’s interest in the study abroad programs, which require a basic knowledge of Italian, particularly the full-immersion program at the University of Bologna, where Notre Dame students live with Italian students and take classes in the university with them.

The Bologna program requires at least four semesters of Italian, while the Rome program requires only two.

“There seem to be lots of reasons why students want to study Italian at Notre Dame,” said professor Christian Moevs. “One reason is that we’re cool. More seriously, it’s hard to compete with Italy and with Italian literature and culture for beauty, profundity, richness and general quality and joy of life.”

A similar phenomenon draws students into French classes and consequently a semester in Angers, France.

“I don’t think that there’s any question that the Angers program has influenced some students to choose French for study at ND,” said Paul McDowell, coordinator of the Angers program. “It is an increasingly common phenomenon to find former Angers program students in the crowd at my freshman orientation presentation. Their children, now Notre Dame students, grew up hearing about castles, tapestries, baguettes and this beautiful city where Notre Dame has been for been for forty years. They want to be a part of that, and I think this is one of the better untold stories of Notre Dame tradition.”

Similarly, student interested in the Russian program has also sparked, and the enrollment witnessed an increase of approximately 10 percent over the last few years.

David Gasperetti, chair of the German and Russian Language and Literature department, said students are attracted to the program because of the exotic nature of Russia and also for other reasons.

“I find that most students are drawn to Russian for two reasons – either they see it as a strong complement to a major in political science, history, or English, which it is, or they are drawn by its outstanding literary tradition, which has given the world such world-renowned figures as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov,” Gasperetti said.

Gasperetti is also confident that those first three semesters of introduction to the language are adequate preparation before going abroad.

There are also study abroad programs in other non-English speaking countries, including Egypt, Greece, Spain and Brazil.

Though the foreign language requirement demands only three semesters of any given language, which give students the basic skills to successfully communicate, professors encourage students to further their studies.

Maureen Boulton, director of Notre Dame’s program in Angers, France, asserted, “the difference between what a French major learns and what you learn in the language requirement is comparable to the difference between doing a freshman composition requirement and a major in English.”

In order to really become proficient and understand the culture, a person needs to study the language more than three semesters, she said.

“It’s like a dinner party,” Moevs said. “The language requirement is simply setting the table for dinner. The majors actually serve the food so you can really eat and enjoy dinner.”