Foreign language studies booming at URI while enrollments decline nationally

Leaders cite key URI interdisciplinary global education programs

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Students speak with a French professor
Students speak with a French lecturer Celine Jacquenod during a language activity. Photograph by Ayla Fox

KINGSTON, R.I., Jan. 23, 2019 — Enrollment in the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures is booming while enrollments in university foreign language programs have been declining across the nation.

Surveys published in 2018 and by the Modern Language Association show that course enrollments other than English at universities and colleges in the United States fell by 9.2 percent between 2013 and 2016. For the same period at URI, the number of students majoring in languages grew from 511 to 655, a 28 percent increase. Over a 10-year period, URI’s modern and classical languages department has grown from 335 to 732 majors.

Students hone their Spanish
Students hone their Spanish speaking skills during the weekly conversation hour. Photograph by Nora Lewis

According to the department’s strategic plan, which was completed in 2016, that 732 total of students majoring in languages puts URI ahead of the University of New Hampshire’s 102 majors; the University of Connecticut’s 375; West Virginia University’s 145 and Montana State University’s 115.

Mark Rectanus,  professor of German and director of  Languages and Cultures for Professions at Iowa State University, who evaluated the URI department, said its “outstanding  international programs and collaborations are nationally recognized and represent a significant contribution to the profile and academic standing of the university. Within a national context, the number of department of language majors is at least 50 to 60 higher than majors in world  language programs at comparable departments and universities.”

One of the keys to the growth at URI is the high level of collaboration among colleges and departments to create interdisciplinary programs with a global focus. With the founding of the International Engineering Program more than 30 years ago, URI created a successful model that many institutions follow. URI’s signature international programs share development of a high level of language mastery and a full year spent abroad to study and serve on internships.

Summer Palace, China.
Summer Palace, China. Photograph by Emily Hadfield

The University’s international engineering, business and computer science programs now offer language tracks in German, French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese. The Chinese Flagship Program challenges students to achieve superior language proficiency and a bachelor of arts in Mandarin Chinese as well as a bachelor’s degree in a chosen field.

Students in the International Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design Program can choose either Italian or French, and the International Pharmaceutical Sciences Program offers a dual-degree in French with the possibility of earning hospital rotations in Rennes, France. This year, a new International Studies and Diplomacy Program has been launched, with language tracks in German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Chinese.

“Our goal is to build a high level of language proficiency and cultural competence so that students are prepared to study abroad,” says Karen de Bruin, department chair.

The department sets ambitious proficiency goals for students, and it fosters a culture of immersion on campus.

Donna Gamache-Griffiths, director of the International Business Program, said URI’s strength lies in embracing global diversity. “The University has done so much to support the internationalization of our programs and make them accessible to our students. We have forged connections and partnerships with colleges and universities around the world and added a global component to our curricula campus-wide,” she said.

“There is inherent value in the study of the humanities,” says Sigrid Berka, executive director of the International Engineering Program. “The liberal arts foundation students receive by learning the language, the literature, and the perspective of another culture builds not only intellectual skills like critical thinking and novel approaches to problem-solving, but also empathy and altruism.”

The Internationalists

Ali Otto, who earned her bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2018, was a student in the German International Engineering Program. She completed an internship at a company near Stuttgart, Germany, where she met with friends from URI for the annual Wasen spring festival. In an impromptu community of strangers, Otto struck up a conversation with two Germans. When they learned she was from the United States, they were surprised; her German was so good, they didn’t peg her as a foreigner. “That was a real highlight for me because I had started in German 101 my first year, and my fluency improved so much,” she says.

Cynthia Malambi, class of 2020, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, spent part of her childhood in the Kpomasse refugee camp in Benin. Like many children in West Africa, Malambi learned French in school. She spoke Swahili and Lingala at home, and the camp brought together people from a variety of nations. Malambi understands some Kikongo, Fon, and Mina and can even speak a few words. “We had to use language to connect to each other, so it was something we just picked up without learning it formally,” she said. Malambi continues to seek language as a way to connect at URI, where she majors in political science and French and is also studying Chinese. “I am interested in international human rights, particularly on the continent of Africa. French is spoken in many nations there, and China has been investing widely in Africa over the past decade,” she said.

Richard Lisi, a spring 2018 graduate who majored in kinesiology and who aspires to be a physician, studied the Italian language and culture because it’s an important part of his heritage. “Language is a medium that helps people become more self-aware, and it has the power to transmit values across generations,” he says. It also enriches his perspective on his chosen field. “It will help me be more open to the diverse needs of my patients,” Lisi said.  “Learning another language gives people a cross-cultural empathy.”