Department of Romance Languages approves Portuguese minor, addresses declines in enrollment

The Department of Romance Languages hopes the newly instated Portuguese minor will mitigate the decline in enrollment in recent years. Shirley Wang / The Tufts Daily

Faculty in the Department of Romance Languages approved a new Portuguese minor on Wednesday amid declining student interest in the department as a whole.

The Portuguese minor, which will become available for students next semester, may help maintain enrollment in Portuguese courses, according to Portuguese coordinator Cristiane Soares.

A March 2014 survey cited in the Portuguese minor proposal, provided to the Daily by Soares, found that 93 percent of students taking Portuguese at the time reported that they would complete the minor if it were offered.

“We see that more and more, students are coming because they have [a] professional interest,” Soares said. “It is not just that they are heritage speakers of the language; they can see that they can use the language in their future.”

She explained that there are currently enough Portuguese courses to fulfill the university’s language requirement, but that having a minor will provide an incentive for students to continue studying the language.

“We think the minor is going to be very important because a lot of students decided to take other languages, or simply stop taking Portuguese because they didn’t have a minor,” Soares said. “They couldn’t say, ‘I have this degree.’”

Chair of the Department of Romance Languages Professor Pedro Palou explained that without a minor, students may not seek to pursue more advanced courses.

“A lot of people just drop Portuguese after Portuguese 1 or 2,” Palou said.

Soares said when she first started at Tufts in spring 2010, there was a surge in Portuguese course enrollment.

According to data collected by the Modern Language Association (MLA), national enrollment in Portuguese, the national language of Brazil and Portugal, increased by 10.1 percent between 2009 and 2013.

“The economy of Brazil became very important worldwide,” Soares said. “Students and professionals started to realize [that] if you want to talk about specific things, we have to include Brazil in this discussion.”

“Because of the Olympic games and the World Cup, everything was Brazil, Brazil, Brazil,” Palou said.

However, enrollment numbers have been on a steady decline since the initial surge, Soares added

According to data provided by Palou and Elizabeth Birdsall, the administrator of the Department of Romance languages, there were 105 students enrolled in Portuguese language classes in the 2011-2012 academic year. That number had decreased to 95 students the following year, and 63 and 64 students were enrolled in Portuguese courses in the fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters, respectively. Last academic year, 46 students took Portuguese courses in the fall and 37 students did so in the spring.

Soares said the decrease in enrollment reflects patterns affecting other languages.

“From the first year I was here until the third year, it was just growing, growing, growing,” she said. “We had like double the numbers in the first three years. And then what happened across Romance languages, [as] we saw with all Romance languages across the country, was the numbers were going down a little.”

Student enrollment in Romance languages at Tufts has declined over the years, according to the data provided by Palou and Birdsall. In 2011, there were 86 seniors who graduated with degrees in Romance languages, but by 2014, only 57 seniors graduated with Romance language degrees. Last spring, only 36 students graduated with a degree in Romance languages.

This downward trend at Tufts reflects national patterns; enrollment in Spanish and French at undergraduate and graduate American institutions dropped by 8.2 percent and 8.1 percent respectively between 2009 and 2013, according to data collected by the MLA. National enrollment in Italian decreased by 11.3 percent during that time period.

Dr. Laura Baffoni Licata, coordinator of the Italian Studies program, said she has seen cyclical changes in participation in Romance language studies.

“I’ve seen cycles of enrollment, but this time [the declining trend] seems to be more of a national trend in the humanities and foreign languages,” Licata said.

Licata explained that economics may have been a factor motivating this decline.

“After the 2008 economic crash, a lot of jobs were lost,” she said. “There was a huge concern students wouldn’t have jobs after leaving university, and the fields that seemed easier, more approachable to finding jobs were computer science, engineering departments, science.”

Licata said that she expects enrollment to increase as the economy improves, but that the department still needs time to catch up.

Palou also cited economic pressures as a factor turning students away from Romance languages in general.

“If you fulfill or almost fulfill the language requirement, and there is a strong push by the parents to major in something in profitable, you just say I [will] get rid of languages as I get rid of the culture or arts requirements…and pursue this major that is so profitable,” he said.

However, Palou said that there can be problems with choosing a major based on its perceived profitability.

“I believe that’s a myth because if you’re not good at your major, you’re going to be serving tables, no matter how profitable [it is],” he said.

Despite the enrollment declines, Palou said that the department is healthy and that no majors or minors are in danger of extinction. However, he added something needs to be done to counteract this trend.

“You can’t rest on your laurels and say, ‘Oh, we are healthy,’” Palou said. “We are very aware we want to be not only a healthy department, but a department that offers something the students are needing and wanting and concerned about.”

The department offers courses in English about the literature and culture of various Romance languages, according to Palou.

“I think it’s a way of bringing people to the languages apart from the language requirements,” Palou said.

These English-language capstone courses already exist for Spanish and French, but a new course on “Italian Society and Culture” will be offered next fall, according to Palou. The course on Italian will be an introductory course to the culture, but will expose students to the language as well, he said.

“You start knowing the vocabulary and reading small things [in the language] and start seeing the film screened in Italian with the translation in English,” Palou said. “You start thinking, ‘Ok, this is something I could do.’”

Licata explained that many students have few opportunities to learn Italian before coming to college.

“You’ll find very few high schools that will offer Italian,” she said.

According to Palou, these events are hosted by the Department of Romance Languages, in conjunction with the Career Center. There will be a “What to do with your French Major” event this fall and a similar event for Spanish majors next semester, he said.

“One of the people that’s coming in the spring is an expert in stock markets and finance and is working in French,” Palou said. “And all his clients are French.”

While Licata has not formally planned a formal event for Italian majors, she said she is considering hosting a Skype event for juniors, seniors and undecided majors at which alumni would explain how they used their major in their careers.

Similarly, Soares asked seniors who took Portuguese and have gone abroad to talk to first-year who are just starting the language this year.

“[Seniors told] them about their experiences, how their applications for jobs have opened since learning the language,” she said. “If you want to have good opportunities in your life, you need to speak more than one language.”

The Department of Romance Languages has launched various initiatives, including hosting career-focused events. According to Palou, the department now hosts events with alumni who explain how majoring in a language helped their career, partially to combat the belief that Romance languages do not serve as profitable majors.

“There is a lot of interest and need of people that are bilingual … I’m not talking about translators or interpreters,” Palou said.

Palou added that bilingualism is beneficial to fields such as finance and healthcare.

Sophomore Alex Dorfman, a Spanish and English double major, said that having a bilingual perspective makes a difference.

“Learning other languages changes how you think and how you process information,” she said.

Palou agreed that students should have experiences with other languages to expand their worldview.

“If you think monolingual[ly], it really shortens and narrows your world,” Palou said. “One language besides English has to be pursued not only as a language, but as a perspective of really engaging with the world outside of the United States.”

Correction: The previous version of this article stated that according to the data provided to the Daily by Birdsall and Palou, Italian is the language with the lowest course enrollment at Tufts. This is incorrect– Portuguese has the lowest course enrollment within the Department of Romance Languages and no comparison should have been made to enrollment in other language courses outside of the department. The Daily regrets this error.