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Critical languages prove popular choices among students

Published: Monday, November 19, 2012

Updated: Monday, November 19, 2012 08:11

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Caroline Geiling / The Tufts Daily

The study of Chinese and Arabic has seen a rise in popularity and interest as these critical languages grow globally in significance.


In a world now more globally integrated than ever, the study of foreign language is vital, as is having a supply of professionals who can speak languages of global importance.

Most Americans lack proficiency in the languages defined as critical by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). In order to promote students’ focus on these languages, the ECA sponsors a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program, which offers fully funded summer programs abroad in 13 critical languages for university students: Azerbaijani, Bengali, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Punjabi, Turkish, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Japanese and Russian. Given Tufts’ rigorous foreign language requirement and strong international concentration, it’s no surprise that Jumbos have taken advantage of the ECA’s offerings.

Four Tufts students — three undergraduates and a graduate student — participated in CLS−funded institutes last summer, and a total of 27 Jumbos have participated over the past six years, according to the CLS website.

According to Program Specialist for Scholar Development in the Tufts Office of Undergraduate Education Anne Moore, CLS is intended to encourage more U.S. citizens to learn languages that are important to foreign policy and practice those languages abroad.

“I think [that the reason] why [CLS programs are] popular among Tufts students has to do with both the language and the skills that you gain, but also the prestige attached to the grant,” Moore said. “It winds up making you much more competitive for other, similar grants ... like a Fulbright. I would be really excited about helping students put their applications together.”

Of the ECA’s 13 critical languages, Tufts only offers courses in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Russian. According to Department of German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literatures Chair Hosea Hirata, a professor in the Japanese program, popular demand is often the driving factor behind developing a program in a particular language, but not all demands can be met.

“There are some demands occasionally for Korean language or Urdu. Those are legitimate demands, [and] it would be really wonderful if you could teach 6000 languages, but there are practical limitations to having a language that we can offer,” Hirata said. “The issue is, though, we don’t just teach languages in this department. Every major is connected with culture. For example, if you major in Japanese or Chinese, you have to study Japanese literature, history, culture, cinema and so on.”

Popular interest in certain languages fluctuates over time, Hirata said, and is often connected with current events in the world. For example, interest in studying Japanese soared after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“[The] American government gathered up all these very smart people and did intense language training,” Hirata said. “After the war, they went to Japan as translators for the military there. Some of them became fascinated with Japanese culture, and they became the very first pioneers in Japanese studies.”

Sophomore William Beckham, who is majoring in international relations and studying Arabic, said that the Sept. 11 attacks were a driving force behind his curiosity to study the language and culture of the Middle East.

“The Middle East kind of inseparably became part of my life and the lives of a lot of Americans,” Beckham said. “I felt like there was a lot more to the Middle East than just what we were seeing on the news.”

Senior Mark Rafferty, who is double majoring in international relations and Arabic, found that the attacks brought about a change within the country.

“[I was] looking at America and looking at a lot of the ignorance ... and a lot of the racism that I saw in America, and I wanted to be able to sort of reach out beyond that,” he said.

On the other hand, there are some languages, such as Russian, that many students are losing interest in.

“During [the] Cold War, Russian was big,” Hirata said. “But after the Berlin Wall crumbled and [the] Soviet Union became nonexistent, Russian sort of decreased a little bit, but it is still counted as a critical language ... There’s a shortage of people who can speak Russian in this country.”

Critical languages have also been deemed highly useful in certain careers, though professors and students tend to agree that the usefulness of a language depends on the chosen career.

“Every language I think really should help you shape your career because there’s always a demand for not only even linguistic competency, but a cultural competency,” Hirata said.

According to Hirata, because proficiency in critical languages is so rare, it is often a major factor for employers choosing among candidates for a job.

“If you go to China, or Japan, you find out that they don’t understand English and if you become fluent in Chinese or Japanese, then you become one of the very few Americans that knows these languages, and that’s an instant advantage,” he said.

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