Italian and Portuguese programs look to expand enrollment amidst decreased interest nationally

The Olin Center, home to Tufts' language departments, is pictured on March 14. Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily

Faculty in Tufts’ Portuguese and Italian programs have been working to expand opportunities for students of their respective languages.

Last spring, the Department of Romance Languages offered a Portuguese minor for the first time, awarding its first degree to one Class of 2016 graduate who happened to have already taken the six requisite courses, according to Portuguese Program Coordinator Cristiane Soares.

“She was a senior and was able to complete the minor. It was great, because it was just one semester [since starting the minor] and we had a person already,” Soares said.

So far four students, in addition to the one who graduated last year, have declared Portuguese minors with 10 more expected to declare in the coming years based on study abroad participation and accumulated course credits, according to Soares. Soares attributes this growing interest to the benefit of earning a credited degree for one’s coursework.

“We really give these students the opportunity to continue with Portuguese so they can show [proficiency] in their CV [and] their transcript, and that is something important,” Soares said. “It’s something practical.”

Soares added that the four current seniors who have taken Portuguese at Tufts will not be graduating with the minor, as they have not taken all of the requisite courses for the degree. She attributed this discrepancy to students favoring courses that they knew would count towards a degree before the Portuguese minor was approved.

Chair of the Romance Languages Department Pedro Palou noted, however, that the national issue of declining interest in Romance languages has not disappeared, though language enrollment at Tufts is fairly steady.

Citing a 2015 survey by the Modern Language Association (MLA), Palou explained that dwindling interest in both Romance languages and foreign languages as a whole has been observed across the nation. The survey indicates that between 2009 and 2013, enrollment in foreign languages decreased 6.7 percent in the United States.

This trend is particularly evident in the Italian program, where, according to Italian Language Program Coordinator Cristina Pausini, enrollment has suffered in the past. She said that since the spring of 2011, an average of five undergraduate students with Italian minors have graduated annually, and that last year, the number was down to two. However, Pausini does expect five to graduate with the minor this year, followed by another five the next year.

Pausini elaborated that the overall decrease in Italian enrollment is not unique to Tufts, pointing out that recent economic and political tumult in Italy, in addition to its decrease in geopolitical prominence, have contributed to the decline.

Nonetheless, Pausini explained that a minor for engineering students is offered, with slightly different requirements.

“[The engineering minor is] something that is picking up,” Pausini said. “We would love for that to grow, because studying a language can make them a lot more marketable than just being completely proficient in their own subject.”

One limiting factor for the Italian program is the lack of a Tufts study-abroad offering in Italy, according to Pausini.

“You have to keep in mind that to open a Tufts program abroad, it costs a lot of money,” Pausini said. “We do not have the perfect numbers. Unfortunately … [the lack of a program] is hurting us as a language.”

Pausini added that a cross-disciplinary Italian study abroad program, with course options not just for students studying Italian, would be promising. Pausini noted that the push for such a program would have to come from students.

Similarly, Soares noted that a possible Tufts Portuguese program in Brazil would be important not only to draw more people to the minor, but also to help students thoroughly learn the language.

“When you have to really use the language with a purpose, to communicate, to buy bread or to take a bus, is when you really get to know how much you can do with a language,” Soares said.

For now, however, both the Portuguese and Italian programs are working to make their programs on the Medford/Somerville campus more robust, according to the directors. Palou explained that the key in this process is taking advantage of Tufts’ stated commitment to active citizenship.

For example, senior Elena Bell, who will be going to Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship next year as an English teaching assistant, elaborated that one of the Portuguese program’s strengths is the presence of a large Brazilian immigrant population in the Somerville area. Soares hopes events that engage this community, such as Brazil Week, will draw more students to the program. The Italian program has hosted similar events, according to Palou, such as annual presentations by Italian filmmakers about the Italian immigrant experience.

Both Soares and Pausini expect their respective programs to continue to have lower enrollment yet stay healthy in the coming years, and they emphasized the continued importance of languages and humanities in an academic setting increasingly focused on STEM programs.

“Right now, students are more oriented toward something that would get them a job,” Pausini said. “They do not understand that learning how to get to know another culture actually expands their horizons in a way that lets them develop as people, not just as experts in their own field.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the Department of Romance Languages recently began offering an Italian minor for School of Engineering students, with slightly different requirements. That minor has actually been offered for several years. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.