Tennessee’s current “Ready for the World” initiative claims on its Web site to be “an ambitious plan to help students gain the international and intercultural knowledge they need to succeed in today’s world.” In fact, this campaign reflects a national trend stemming, most prominently, from President George W. Bush’s 2006 “National Security Language Initiative.”
But an increased focus on campus diversity is yet to have any real impact on the university department most closely tied to foreign cultures, the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures.
The president’s initiative seeks to increase the number of American speakers of foreign languages, deemed critical to strengthening U.S. security and prosperity.
Enrollment in all the areas specifically identified by the initiative, such as Arabic, Chinese and Russian, is negligible in comparison to the number of students currently enrolled in languages that did not make the list, such as French and Spanish.
“Spanish is the standard response of students at UT,” said Jeff Mellor, head of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures. “They (students) just don’t think in terms of national priorities.
“I wish we could effectively encourage students to look at the world as an opportunity to get out and truly experience a culture,” Mellor said.
Students often dismiss the concept of “getting ready for the world” and instead simply view foreign language as a two-year requirement toward their degree, he added.
In this way, Miller contends, students are not doing a disservice to their country in as much as they are doing a disservice to themselves.
This is not to say that students are completely indifferent toward foreign language. In fact, the department has experienced significant growth in the number of students learning Japanese and Chinese.
“In 2003, we had only 16 students and now we have 50 plus. So, enrollment has more than doubled. There are a number of reasons for this, mainly economical and political,” said DongHui He, assistant professor of modern foreign languages.
While Chinese enrollment may be at an all-time high with around 25 second-year students, it still pales in comparison to the 49 sections of second-year Spanish students.
Still, UT boasts a full-time faculty member in the Chinese program, two full-time faculty members for Japanese and two faculty members for Russian. The area in which they are most obviously unequipped is Arabic. Currently, there are no full-time staff members in the Arabic program, and the classes are primarily taught using audio tapes and DVDs.
Rosalind Gwynne, associate professor of religious studies and campus expert on Islam, taught Arabic at UT for many years prior to joining the religious studies department when Arabic enrollment declined in the early 1990s. Gwynne said that Arabic students currently meet three days a week with native speakers to practice the language. The tests administered to students are outside exams that adhere to a national standard.
However, much like Chinese, the demand for Arabic is growing substantially. At Tennessee, Arabic small groups are intended to have five members but as of now, they usually let in seven or eight to compensate for greater student interest.
“The demand has skyrocketed all over the country, and there aren’t enough people to handle it,” Gwynne said. “But, we’re trying.”
Mellor tried, unsuccessfully, to address this issue in 2004 when he proposed that the university hire a full-time faculty member to instruct Arabic courses. However, Mellor understands that he is fighting an uphill battle.
“From my administration standpoint, it’s hard to justify a position where enrollment is iffy,” Mellor said.
However, the Department of Religious Studies is currently at the forefront of the task of bringing a full-time professor to UT for the Arabic program, and they’re hoping to do so without dipping too far into university funding.
A federal matching grant was recently submitted to the U.S. Office of Education by the department’s head, Gilya Schmidt, along with other staff members and members of the community interested in seeing the program grow.
The university will not know the outcome of the grant application until April and will then decide exactly how to spend the money. The grant is to fund the hiring of one full-time staff member for the Arabic program. Yet, at this point, it is uncertain whether the new hire will be a member of the religious studies or modern foreign languages department.
Either way, Gwynne hopes that it will be the first step toward the program’s overall expansion.
Mellor, too, said he is optimistic about the proposal’s chance of success and the overall expansion of the foreign language department’s diversity.
“There has been a change in the dean’s office, a change in the provost’s office, and there may be a change in the way we approach this,” Mellor said.
He said he believes the “Ready for the World” initiative helped the university attract Bruce Bursten, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the current provost, Robert Holub, who built one of the nation’s foremost German programs while at the University of California-Berkeley.
Language program still small
Published: Tue Jan 30, 2007 | Modified: Tue Jan 30, 2007 05:43 p.m.