Foreign language departments respond to new demand

What do the Olympics, anime and Russia’s geopolitics have in common? They’re all fuelling an unprecedented surge of interest in foreign languages at the College. As introductory courses in many departments threaten over-enrollment, many traditional language departments, like Asian studies and romance languages, are undergoing expansion, and Arabic, a newer option, is fast gaining ground.

With 29 major candidates this year, the Chinese program in the Asian studies department currently holds the honor of having the highest number of majors among the foreign language departments. In addition, Chinese 101 now offers three sections, with 10 students in each section. “In one of the high level classes, we’ve got 10 students this year, too,” said Cornelius Kubler, chair and Stanfield Professor of Asian Studies, adding that competition for student teaching assistants (TAs) in Chinese was unusually fierce this year.

Kubler, who heads a team of seven faculty members and two language fellows who provide five years of Mandarin instruction as well as courses in Cantonese and Taiwanese dialects, underscored the importance of maximizing the opportunities outside the classroom. “This year, we have doubled our Chinese tables to twice a week: Monday in Greylock and Thursday in Paresky,” Kubler said. Students also participate in five language immersion programs in China, including Princeton in Beijing, Associate Colleges in China and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American studies.

Similarly, Japanese 101 has an enrollment of 19 students, almost the program’s maximum capacity. In addition, nine students are enrolled in 400-level classes. “Three or four years ago, enrollments were down, but more recently [they have] been increasing,” said Shinko Kagaya, associate professor of Japanese, “and the high enrollment in the current introductory course suggests that the trend will continue.”

While it used to be the booming Japanese economy that drew students to the languages, Kagaya suggests that “recently – more and more students are interested in Japanese popular culture, especially animation, film and gaming.” This January, the College will be offering a Winter Study course in Japan for the first time to capitalize on this cultural interest.

One of the largest pushes for expansion is occurring in the Arabic department. After starting out as a critical language program with very low enrollment, and hiring its first professor, Armando Vargas in 2004-05, Arabic 101 has started this fall with over 25 students. To ensure comprehensive instruction with such large numbers, the department is attempting to hire a third professor, although “everybody is starting an Arabic program now, so there are many openings for a very small pool of qualified professors,” said Gail Newman, professor of German and coordinator for Arabic.

The department has begun offering a third year of Arabic, which has a current enrollment of five to seven students, and hopes to create an Arabic language major in the near future as well as an interdisciplinary Middle Eastern studies major. “Williams was one of the first liberal arts colleges with an Arabic program,” Newman said, “and we’re a model for other colleges and universities around the country.”

In the romance languages department, French 101, 103 and 105 are all significantly over-enrolled this year. “The over-enrollment in French 103 is a trend in many languages [such as] Spanish,” said Brian Martin, assistant professor of French, who conducted two class surveys and a five-minute interview with each prospective student to trim his class size. The registrar caps French language courses at 20 students, a figure which Leyla Rouhi, chair of romance languages, calls “still too big.”

According to Rouhi, international students show a notably high interest in foreign languages. “In one of the Spanish courses, seven out of 18 were international students, and they seemed to be the most loyal ones,” Rouhi said, noting that many international students are successful English learners who are now trying third or fourth languages.

Russian, while not expanding per se, is enjoying reinvigorated student interest in light of the recent Georgian crisis and the growing strength of Russia. “There is a resurgence of interest in the Russian language, for extremely valid reasons,” said Julie Cassiday, professor of Russian and chair of German and Russian.

In response to greater student interest in Russian studies, the department has begun to reorganize. The intermediate and advanced classes have been combined into one section with two different conversation groups, which allows students closer contacts with the Russian TAs. Because this frees up faculty time, the Russian department has been able to contribute some new comparative literature courses, such as “Russian and Soviet Film.”

“There are many students who aren’t ready to commit to four years of Russian language, but who have an interest in the culture,” Cassiday said, citing the perennial popularity of “Topics on Russian Culture: Feasting and Fasting in Russian History” taught by Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian.

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