Communicating as 'world citizens'

BYU language program thrives as Church grows

As the Church spreads from country to country, members are becoming more and more aware of international cultures and customs.

Not only does that include becoming aware of a worldwide Church membership, but for many members it also includes learning the languages of these countries.The interest in languages is fueled by the Church's missionary program, according to Randall L. Jones, dean of the BYU College of Humanities.

"Members of the Church are a lot more aware of things international, including languages, than the average citizen," he said. "Not only do many members serve foreign missions, but a brother, sister, relative or friend is on a foreign mission, or one of the parents may have been a missionary abroad. That can't help but make members sensitive to different languages and cultures in the world."

While many universities throughout the country struggle to keep their language departments alive, BYU's language program flourishes with about 10,000 students enrolled in as many as 54 languages. Twenty-two languages are taught on a regular basis and 32 are taught on an occasional basis. Languages such as modern Icelandic and Raratongan are available for credit by examination.

Nationally, American college students are studying foreign languages less, according to a New York Times article. In 1960, 16 students out of every 100 enrolled in college were taking a foreign language. In 1990, the rate dropped to 8.5.

"Our success revolves around the missionary program of the Church," Brother Jones reflected. "The majority of students who serve foreign missions come back and take one or more language classes because they want to know more about that country's language and culture.

"A lot come back and realize they can major in Japanese, for example, and then enter an MBA program or go on to medical school. Many students find a liberal arts education attractive and they enjoy their classes more.

"We do have our share of those who graduate in a language and say `now what?' but for those who plan ahead and see possibilities, we have a lot of success stories."

Some students have used their bachelor's degree in a language to work for local software companies such as WordPerfect, for example, as these companies have expanded computer programs to other languages, he said.

The language program at BYU, which falls under the College of Humanities, involves five departments: Asian and Near Eastern Languages, French and Italian, Germanic and Slavic, Spanish and Portuguese, and Linguistics (in which English as a second language is offered).

While Spanish, German, French, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese and Italian are the most commonly taught languages, courses in Mandarin, Korean, Hebrew and Arabic are taught on a regular basis. Czech is taught occasionally as is Vietnamese, Mongolian, Cantonese, Romanian, modern Greek and Afrikaans, among others.

The Spanish and Portuguese Department maintains the highest enrollment at BYU with 3,500 students this semester. The Germanic and Slavic Department is next with 1,400, Asian and Near Eastern Languages has 1,350, and the French and Italian Department is close behind with 1,300 students.

The Japanese language program continues to enjoy a high enrollment, said Van Gessel, chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages. There are about 800 students enrolled in Japanese classes each semester.

BYU has the second-largest undergraduate Japanese language program in the country, he added. (The largest is at the University of Hawaii.) "We stand out on the continental United States with a program that is double the size of other university programs.

"A small number of our students who are majoring in Japanese go on to a graduate Japanese program, but many students are treating it as a liberal pre-professional program when they enter," he noted. "They are not getting in it for an easy major because the program is challenging. For many it is a skill they will add to another skill as they go out into the business world."

Five full-time faculty members teach Japanese, including a class in Japanese business culture, to students who are mostly returned missionaries to Japan. Many pursue degrees in Japanese because of business opportunities.

"In my classes I don't treat returned missionaries as if they have finished doing missionary work in the country they served," Brother Gessel noted. "A lot of what we talk about is how different their role will be when they go back to that country - how they can be more effective in being a member of a ward there and in helping members learn more about how the Church operates. We also talk about how they will be more effective now that they understand more about the culture, language and civilization."

Another popular language at BYU includes Russian, with 465 students enrolled.

"Russian has been one of our bread and butter languages for years because of the general interest in Eastern Europe," Brother Jones remarked. "Now we are getting missionaries coming back and it is mushrooming.

"We are trying to find funding to be able to provide new positions for professors in these Eastern European languages which are growing rapidly at BYU."

One program that is increasing in enrollment is Portuguese, Brother Jones commented. "Two years ago the Church opened three missions in Brazil, and this year they opened four more, so there are more missionaries returning who are seeking to enroll in courses in Portuguese."

Arabic is another popular language on campus, he said. "We have three of the best Arabic professors in the country.

"We probably have one of the biggest technology-supported language programs in the nation," Brother Jones added. "We have a reputation for being leaders in developing technology in the language world. We have all kinds of computer programs developed for doing anything from learning Japanese characters to learning Spanish using interactive video."

Students who are studying a foreign language can become even more immersed in the language by living in the Foreign Language Student Residence on campus, Brother Jones remarked.

At present, 140 students live in the complex. Apartments are currently occupied by students learning Spanish, French, Italian, German, Arabic, Portuguese and Russian. The university opens the residence to other languages such as Japanese, Chinese and Hebrew when interest is there.

Students agree to speak only the foreign language when they are in the residence. They prepare meals together, converse during the meal, and have other activities such as family home evening in the foreign language.

"I think we are at the point of development as a Church where members have to be world citizens," Brother Gessel remarked. "I think we all have to be aware of what is happening throughout the world, what the Church is doing and how we can contribute to that."

Brother Jones further noted: "I think people who read the Church News can't help but have an awareness of an international Church. They see maps showing new missions, read about relief programs in Romania and General Authorities traveling to all points of the globe, some even called from foreign lands.

"I think there are certain areas about which people ought to be educated. They need to know about the social sciences, natural sciences and languages.

"As people come in contact with others in life, the fact that they have a language background will help them in some way. It will also help in future Church service whether it be serving in missionary efforts or in other areas."

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