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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Critical languages prove popular choices among students

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.

Senior Rebekah Liebermann, who is majoring in international relations and studying Arabic, said that she believed her competency in the language has been advantageous in applying to internships.

"I think that [it] certainly helped, and Arabic can be useful in all kinds of fields, not exclusively government or State Department jobs," Liebermann said.

Beckham agreed, referring to a lecture he attended on the hiring process for ESPN that was enlightening on the subject.

"I went to a talk a couple of weeks ago about working at ESPN, and they said that they weren't just recruiting people who speak Spanish because ESPN wants to cater its programming to people who speak Spanish, they also wanted Arabic speakers because of the World Cup coming up in Qatar," Beckham said. "There are a lot of emerging business opportunities, especially in the Gulf, and not for just oil, as Arabic has the potential to become an important language for business in the future."

However, Liebermann would not advise a student to take Arabic for the sole purpose of advancing his or her career.

"If you don't enjoy learning about the culture, if you don't enjoy memorizing words that sound nothing like English, then you're not going to stick it through for however long you're taking it," Liebermann said.

Beckham and Rafferty agreed that their love of Arabic culture was the rationale behind their studies, and the studies of most students taking Arabic at Tufts.

"[There are] people who are graduating to work as Arabic teachers just of the language just because they love the language so much," Rafferty said. "I think that the department here ... encourages that, [and] tries to help us to learn about the culture, and not just the language."