There is nothing more frustrating than getting to college and finding out you can’t take a class you want to take. Many students experience this feeling during course selection when they find out that a course offered here is full, but imagine trying to take a course that isn’t offered in a department that doesn’t even exist. This was our dilemma when we were hoping to learn Portuguese in college. We wanted to go to a top-tier school, but compromising “fit” for one area of study was out of the question. After all, why study what you love in a place that you hate? Something had to give.
Our purpose with this opinion piece is to start a conversation about incorporating Portuguese into the languages program at Williams. The numbers all point in one direction – it is the sixth most spoken language in the world, and in the top 10 languages spoken in the United States, as more people speak it here than either Hindi or Japanese, according to the 2011 U.S. census. It is also the official language of seven countries, spanning three continents. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Portuguese is the language with the highest possibility for growth in Europe and Southern Africa. Why shouldn’t Williams join in on this expansion?
Within the NESCAC, Middlebury, Tufts and Wesleyan all offer Portuguese programs, ranging from a minor, a department and a yearlong course, respectively. We like to think of Williams leading the way in the NESCAC, but in this case, we’re lagging behind.
A Portuguese program would be a great complement to many majors and concentrations here at Williams. Being able to converse fluently in both Spanish and Portuguese would help a Latino/a Studies concentrator to read original texts in both languages and allow them to work freely with Brazilians when their language abilities might otherwise limit them from opportunities. A public health concentrator or biology major could learn Portuguese to help them get around while studying infectious diseases in the Amazon. An economics major could also benefit from Portuguese experience – Brazil is the seventh wealthiest economy in the world, with substantial economic development since the early 2000s, since becoming one of the top 10 trade partners with the United States. Meanwhile, Brazil is not only set to host the World Cup this year but also the Olympics in 2016, two events that have historically signified economic emergence for developing host countries. At this point, Williams offers three out of the four languages spoken in the BRIC nations: Russian, Hindi (as a critical language) and Chinese … but not Portuguese. Out of the six approved study abroad programs in Brazil that Williams advertises, two necessitate Portuguese proficiency – but how can Williams students choose these programs if they are not given the language skills required?
What is more, Williams is home to the Center for Developmental Economics, which offers one of the College’s only two graduate degrees and is host to many students from Brazil each year. As Brazil is one of the world’s most prominent developing nations, it would make sense to offer Portuguese in order to further the College’s investment in the study of developing world economies.
As of now, Williams only offers Hindi, Swahili, Korean and Hebrew as Critical Languages that can be taken as one-year intermediate courses through largely independent study, with the guidance of a tutor and help from language faculty from other institutions. The Critical Languages page on the Williams website states, “The Program originated in part from requests by a more diverse student body, faculty’s interests in emerging regional issues, and from the ever-pressing need to respond to the pluralistic realities of today’s world.” We feel that this statement most aptly supports our argument, as a wide array of students study abroad in Brazil each year, while many esteemed members of the faculty either have proficiency in Portuguese, conduct research in Brazil or both, and many more students have expressed a desire to learn Portuguese or, for some seniors, wish they could have learned it.
Ultimately, we want our education to prepare us for life after college. That means access to skills in college that give us the capacity to pursue our dreams in the real world. One would expect that at one of the top-ranked colleges in the United States, students deserve the right to be accommodated in their academic desires, and in fact academic expansion of this sort should be encouraged. We believe Williams has this capacity, and on the eve of a Brazilian World Cup and Olympics, what better time to test it?
Viva a Lingua de Português!
Aaron Finder ’17 is from New York, NY. He lives in Armstrong. Abby Robinson ’17 is from Seattle, Wash. She lives in Dennett.