Learning a language is one of the most transformative things a student can do during their college years. In nearly two decades of teaching Spanish in American universities, I have never heard a student say, “I wish my parents hadn’t taught me Spanish growing up” or “I wish I had never studied [X or Y language].” The same goes for parents and alumni at admissions and orientations events: languages are the subject they wish they had been able to take or spend more time studying.
The latest report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, “The Humanities in American Life,” confirms the testimonies that most of us working in language departments have heard over the years. According to the survey report, 49 percent of respondents wish they’d had more opportunities to learn languages, more than perennial major favorites like computer science (45 percent), social sciences (40 percent) or business (39 percent). While attitudes about how much and at what age to start language education vary across the political spectrum, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed agree that it is important for children to learn languages other than English.
If only language departments received as much institutional love as those other three disciplines. In comparison, even at institutions that pride themselves on their language and off-campus programs, language departments are starved of resources in the best of times — dealing with generally lower average salaries for their faculty members, lower rates of tenured faculty and a long list of inequalities.
Being the poor relative on campus is the best-case scenario for language departments, which are usually among the first on the chopping block during every recession. Many programs — more than 650 between 2013 and 2016 alone — no longer exist. And since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, other colleges and universities have followed suit. There is no telling what will happen to language departments in financially embattled institutions when the current crisis is over.
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