Northwestern language programs see enrollment across most programs decline


Daily file photo by Jonah Elkowitz

Northwestern offers 17 languages for undergraduate students.

Kristen Axtman, Assistant Campus Editor

Between 2013 and 2016, the Modern Language Association of America reported that undergraduate and graduate enrollment in language classes other than English dropped about 9.2% nationwide.  

Turkish language Prof. Oya Topçuoğlu said Northwestern is not excluded from this trend. She said all of the University’s language programs, apart from Spanish, have seen a decrease in enrollment over the past several years.

“We as educators, but also university administrators, have not been able to convince students that speaking a second, or third or fourth language is actually a skill that’s very useful,” Topçuoğlu said. 

Topçuoğlu disagrees –– she said speaking a less commonly spoken language can set a student apart from others in the job market. 

NU consistently offers 17 languages for undergraduates. In comparison, Harvard College offers more than 80 languages, though many are accessible upon petition or through online courses with live instruction. The University of Wisconsin-Madison regularly offers 53 languages.

According to Topçuoğlu, the University eliminated its offerings in Persian and Czech due to a lack of student interest. She said Polish, Turkish and other less commonly taught languages are at risk. 

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Erin Karter said NU does not anticipate reducing or eliminating the language requirement for students. Still, she said total enrollment size and funding resources play an important role in determining the breadth of curricular offerings.

“Enrollments in less commonly taught languages can vary a lot,” Portuguese language Prof. Ana C. Thomé Williams said. “We needed to count on other levels in administration to help us advertise our courses.”

NU offers some alternative solutions for students who wish to learn less commonly taught languages. 

Karter said the University launched the Language Resource Center to promote less commonly taught languages. According to its website, the LRC provides resources for funding and language learning opportunities. 

Students are also eligible for CourseShare, which allows students to take a language course from another Big Ten university via Zoom. Topçuoğlu said NU’s quarter system complicates this process, so very few students realistically have this option. 

Language programs have also been trying to boost enrollment by hosting campus events. For example, the Portuguese program hosts cultural events every other week. 

Topçuoğlu said language professors started a week-long festival of languages last year to increase enrollment and visibility of language programs, showcasing programs beyond Spanish, French, German and Italian.

Weinberg sophomore Olivia Sotos said she would like to see the University offer more languages. 

Sotos takes Spanish courses, but said she also wants to study Modern Greek, a language NU does not offer. 

“I’m really connected to my Greek heritage,” Sotos said. “All four of my grandparents have migrated from Greece to America, and the language connects me to them.”

Sotos added she has spoken with other Greek students at Northwestern who share a similar sentiment.

But, Topçuoğlu said she does not anticipate language offerings will expand at the University in the future. 

“We’re already having a hard time getting our students into the languages that we offer, so expanding is not really an option at this point,” Topçuoğlu said. 

Weinberg sophomore Jovana Lakic decided to take Turkish because she’s from the Balkans and feels connected to Turkey because of the regions’ shared history under Ottoman rule. 

She is one of two students in her class. Lakic said she’s built a close relationship with her professor and classmate because of this. 

“People are always surprised when you tell them you are studying Turkish,” Lakic said. “If I meet a Turk, and I mention I’ve been learning Turkish for two years, their whole face lights up. So it’s a good way to build connections.”

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Twitter: @KristenAxtman1

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