BYU’s foreign language programs still top other universities

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Spanish. Danish. Arabic. Thai. Croatian. Kiribati. Welsh.

These are only a few of the 131 total languages spoken on the BYU campus.

Last year, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that BYU was ranked No. 3 overall for producing the most graduates with foreign language degrees. As the only private institution in the top 10 schools ranked, BYU was also named the top producer for foreign language degrees in Arabic, Russian and Portuguese. BYU also came in at No. 4 for Korean and No. 6 for French. 

Out of the 33,633 enrolled full-time BYU students, 65% speak at least two languages. BYU also regularly teaches 63 foreign language courses, with another 30 languages which can be offered with sufficient interest.

“We have more advanced language classes than any other university in the country,” said Rebecca Brazzale, the assistant director of the BYU Center for Language Studies.

In the state of Utah alone, BYU teaches more foreign languages than the other universities combined.

BYU ranks as the No. 1 university in Utah for foreign language classes taught. (Graphic by Rebecca Nissen)

One of the contributing factors to language diversity on the BYU campus is the number of returned missionaries. According to the university, 45% of BYU students who served missions learned a second language and can speak it proficiently. 

“One of our goals is to teach all of the languages that returned missionaries speak on campus,” Brazzale said. BYU sits at about the 93-95% range for the same languages taught on campus as in the MTC.

“We’re always missing two or three, so that’s why we keep adding,” Brazzale said.

She noted that the requirements for adding a new foreign language class include a qualified instructor, funding and sufficient student demand.

She said BYU recently added a Kiribati class. “BYU is the first university in the world to offer a university-level Kiribati class.”

Brazzale emphasized the importance of learning a foreign language to gain understanding of different cultures and to become more marketable for job positions.

“We feel like learning a foreign language is very marketable. It’s related to cultural sensitivity and awareness. We call it the ‘hallmark’ of a BYU education — it’s a core competency that really cannot be reproduced anywhere else.”

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages reported last year that 9 out of 10 U.S. employers rely on employees with language skills other than English, and 1 in 4 U.S. employers lost business due to a lack of foreign language skills.

Brazzale also pointed out that learning a foreign language not only helps one intellectually but also spiritually, and BYU aims to fulfill that goal by providing opportunities for students to learn foreign languages.

“At BYU, we have the privilege of thinking about things from both a spiritual and a secular perspective. If you think about the mandate that everyone will learn the gospel in their own tongue, that is a beautiful statement. But now I have a very intimate understanding of how much work is involved for that to happen,” Brazzale said.

She said by learning a foreign language, “the opportunities we have to serve are tremendous.”

Brazzale said BYU is the only university which offers free certification in 18 languages to allow students to have a foreign language proficiency endorsement on their transcripts.

The Center for Language Studies also offers the Foreign Language Student Residence program in 11 languages for students to live in a residence with other speakers of the language.

BYU pre-business student Jared Ward returned from his mission in Romania last summer. He said each of his roommates who speaks a foreign language speaks a different language from each other.

“We’ve got Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and Chinese all in one room.”

“It’s just an interesting experience that you get to see where all these languages come from and see how they interact. It’s a nice mesh of culture,” he said. “You can see what those differences are and how they interact with each other.”

This office in the Jesse Knight Building is shared by Master’s students who teach Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic. From left: Spain native Maider Valdes, Mexico native Fernanda Zamora, Portugal native Ruth Baptista and China native Alia Wang. (Emma Benson)

BYU student instructor Ruth Baptista teaches in the Spanish and Portuguese department.

Baptista and her students worked on a project with The Daily Universe for three years, translating published articles into Portuguese.

“I really enjoyed it because the projects that we worked on were so diverse,” she said.

Baptista said when she first came to the United States as an undergraduate student, she was shocked by a student’s ignorant comment.

“I remember that a student asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ and I said, ‘Portugal,’ and she said, ‘Oh, that’s by India, right?’”

Baptista said she thinks BYU has improved since then in terms of helping increase student awareness of countries and cultures.

“I do believe that campus is becoming much better and I think the language programs definitely help. They’re designed to help us help students become a little bit more open to not have those rigid thoughts about what a South African should look like, or a Portuguese person should look like or what a Bolivian should look like. Definitely our language programs help.”

Ruth Baptista converses in Spanish with one of her former students, Niels Christensen. (Emma Benson)

Niels Christensen, a BYU Hispanic literature master’s student and one of Baptista’s former students, agreed.

“I think that the language program, at the very least, elicits some sort of interest in diversity and diverse cultures and in opening up the conversation for more inclusive conversation,” he said.

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