COVID-19 affected nearly every aspect of Wellesley College, and many of its effects are still lingering. One of these areas was various foreign language departments. The College’s foreign language requirement allows incoming students to test into higher foreign language levels based on their prior experience. Even if students receive an AP or a higher level IB score of 5 or above, in order to complete the foreign language requirement, students are required to take at least one unit in an advanced course in the language studied, or at least two units in a new language.
Foreign language departments and their professors strive to help students develop a love for the language – not just fulfill a minimum language requirement. They seek to teach passionate students who will not only work to be fluent in a language but also develop an understanding of other cultures and traditions. In the French and Spanish and Portuguese departments, COVID-19 took a marked toll, and the future of these language departments relies on their ability to bounce back and continue to nurture students’ passion for language study.
Especially for smaller language departments, maintaining enrollment is crucial for not only keeping these departments running but also creating a space for students to thrive. Full classes give students more opportunity for lively discussions, and continuing to take language classes beyond the minimum requirement opens doors to study abroad programs that require more advanced understanding of a language.
Professor Scott Gunther, the French department chair, said that enrollments in French classes fell significantly in Fall 2020 and 2021. In fall 2022, class enrollments bounced back. The temporary dip in enrollment may be a result of students not wanting to study in a remote environment: according to “An Insight into Online Foreign Language Learning and Teaching in the Era of COVID-19 Pandemic,” a study published in 2021 about students learning foreign languages in a Czech Republic university, most students felt that in-person classes were indispensable to their learning because they encouraged conversation and socialization.
Gunther said that the drop in enrollment may be a result of this preference for fully in-person language learning. Another cause of this drop may be that the number of students studying abroad has decreased.
“Normally, a large percentage of students who study abroad end up taking our upper-level courses when they return,” Gunther said.
Professor Carlos Vega, the department chair for Spanish and Portuguese, said that pre-pandemic enrollment levels had returned to normal or even increased.
“All our classes at the elementary and intermediate levels 101-102 are filled to the brim in sections that are in themselves larger than what is ideal for language study,” Vega said.
While the increase in enrollment is worthy of celebration, Vega said that these classes are often subject to financial constraints on class sizes, which makes course sections much larger than is ideal for optimal learning. A thriving language department opens doors to more faculty and further expansion, potentially making more class sections possible in the future and fostering a smaller conversational environment.
Portuguese classes are not as large, but their numbers are also continuing to rise as more students become interested, Vega said.
“It takes a while for a program to build, and we do feel that Portuguese is growing — which is great given the importance of that language in Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula — not to mention Portuguese-speaking regions elsewhere such as Angola, Cape Verde, etc.,” Vega said.
Vega echoed the importance of studying abroad and emphasized that participation in study abroad programs dropped during the peak of the pandemic, as did majors, though these numbers are returning to normal as well.
“In the case of the languages in general, and Spanish in particular, quite a few of our majors become majors in part because of an experience in a Spanish-speaking country,” Vega said.
What happened to foreign language departments during the peak of the pandemic can be fixed and has already begun to self-correct. This is a confirmation that small class sizes, in-person classes and taking advantage of study abroad programs can not only help students become more comfortable with a language, but also make them really enjoy the study. Gunther said he is optimistic for the future of the French department.
“I think that the return to normal enrollment levels this year is due both to the fact that all the students have been on campus and every course has been taught in person for a few semesters now and to the fact that Wellesley’s top-notch study abroad program in Aix-en-Provence, France is once again attracting students,” Gunther said.