After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a group of Arab American students went to the chair of the modern language department at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., and suggested that studying the Arabic language would be a way to educate their fellow students about the Arabic culture.

“They thought it would be a way to create a bridge,” said Catherine Montfort, who chairs the department. “We thought that adding Arabic would be the right thing to do.” 

Cultural understanding 

For one thing, she said, learning a foreign language is not only personally enriching, but it also creates a better understanding of different cultures. 

“You don’t have to be fluent,” Montfort told Our Sunday Visitor. “But if you understand the language, the people are not strangers. Learning a foreign language forces you to understand that people are OK. They may be Shiite, but they are OK. They may wear a veil, but they are OK. Learning a foreign language helps you to find that humanities exist in other places.” 

Santa Clara, a Jesuit college with more than 5,000 undergraduate students, is one of the Catholic colleges and universities in the United States that offer less common foreign languages, in addition to traditional French, Spanish, German and Italian.  

“We have three categories of students who take the classes in Arabic,” Montfort said. “First are the ones with Arabic backgrounds, about 25 percent of the enrollment. A second group, about 40 percent, are students in political science or international relations. The third group is interested in Arabic culture, and since we have a language requirement, they say why not take a language that doesn’t get a lot of attention?” 

Santa Clara also teaches Japanese and Chinese, but now, she told OSV, “Our classes in Japanese are further along in development, but the world is focusing on the Middle East. So more students are taking Arabic.”  

Opening opportunities 

At Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., the Chinese language and culture program is offered as a minor and is particularly popular with students who study at the sister Catholic college, Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan. It was founded in 1925 by the Benedictines of Saint Vincent Archabbey.  

“The primary purpose is for students to develop skills and abilities for speaking, reading and writing Chinese,” said Doreen Blandino, chair of the modern and classical language department. “In addition to their language courses, they can study the art, history, religion, politics and economics of China through study abroad and also on our campus.” 

The courses are being taught by native speakers from China as a satellite program of the University of Pittsburgh. Saint Vincent is soon hiring its own Chinese professor. 

The college also has a teacher certification in Chinese, so that graduates can teach Chinese in kindergarten through grade 12.  

“We were the first small [1,800 undergraduates] liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania to get approval to run this program,” Blandino told OSV. “Right now, there is a shortage of Chinese teachers in the United States, and this is a great opportunity for students who want to be language teachers.” 

The importance of learning Chinese, she said, is that it opens job markets and other opportunities.  

“Years ago, people thought it was enough to study a culture, the economics, the politics and history of other nations without learning the language,” Blandino said. “But how can we be competitive, how can we act well on the global stage if we can’t speak another language? And Chinese is not just an up-and-coming language. I believe that it is here now.”  

Connection to heritage 

Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., has Korean, Slavic, Bulgarian, Hebrew and Turkish language studies, a Celtic Language and Culture program and a Center for Irish Studies.  

“We have a pretty good Irish heritage here,” said Reid Oslin of the public relations department. “We were formed 150 years ago by the Jesuits because there were so many children of Irish immigrants who didn’t have a place to go to school. So there is quite an interest in all things Irish, whether it’s language, music or literature.”  

Immigrant heritage is also the driving force behind the Polish language studies at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., a Lasallian university with more than 4,200 undergraduates.  

“We are in the heart of a Polish community,” said Serafima Gettys, head of the foreign languages program. “It is a well known fact that [nearby] Chicago has the most dense population of Poles in the country. There is a huge population of students who grew up in Polish families who were not necessarily born in Poland, but they have parents or grandparents who were. So they tend to be interested in trying to get back to their roots. That’s the main interest, not necessarily traveling to Poland or even using the language in their careers.” 

Studying languages, she added, is not always pragmatic and is often pursued out of personal curiosity.  

“If they have Polish blood running through their veins, they really want to find out what is so special about them, and language is one of the ways to find out,” she said. “And sometimes students learn a language just because it’s fun.” 

Gettys, who was raised and educated in St. Petersburg, Russia, teaches Russian and is one of the writers of the book, “Russian For Dummies.” 

International intrigue 

A strong Russian program at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn., has a longtime exchange with a sister campus in Petrozavodsk, Karelia, Russia. Duluth is also linked to that city with the U.S. Friendship City program.  

“We had a very fascinating story that we learned from that connection,” said Bob Ashenmacher, executive director of communications.  

When a group of students and faculty arrived at a railroad station in Karelia in 1986, they were met by a handful of people who spoke English and said they were from Duluth. They were children and grandchildren of 6,000 Finns who had come to the United States, then left in the Depression to resettle in Karelia, which is near the border of Finland. They were idealists who were lured by Stalin, who promised them a socialist utopia. But it turned into a disaster when Stalin’s secret police killed many of the new settlers. 

The late Mayme Sevander was 11 in 1934 when her parents took the family to Karelia, and not long afterwards, her father disappeared. Years later, she found records of his murder.  

Sevander returned to Duluth and later wrote a book, “They Took My Father” (University of Minnesota, $16.95), a chilling account of the horrors that the Finns experienced in Karelia.  

“It was a part of history that we never even knew about,” Ashenmacher said. “And it all grew out of our Russian language program.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Native American Language taught at Catholic college (sidebar)

The language department at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn., has a course that’s not English but it’s not “foreign,” either — not if you consider that it was spoken in North America long before any Europeans came to the continent. 

The Ojibwe Language and Cultural Program incorporates the study of the ancient language of the Ojibwe, who are a major component of the Anishinaabe people, one the largest groups of Native Americans north of Mexico.  

“The Ojibwe language never died out in northern Minnesota, but many fewer speak it than did 150 years ago,” said Bob Ashenmacher, the college’s executive director of communications. “So there is a strong movement to bring it back stronger.”  

The Ojibwe are divided between Canada and the United States, particularly around the Lake Superior region. About 55,000 members of Ojibwe tribes live in Minnesota, with about 40 percent living in the Twin Cities metro area and another third on reservations.  

Benedictine monks from Collegeville and St. Cloud had mission outreaches to the Ojibwe, and the college, located 25 miles from the nearest reservation, was founded in 1912 by Benedictine sisters.  

“St. Scholastica has always reached out to these people, and it seemed like the authentic thing to do, to offer their language and to have programs specifically geared for the Ojibwe people,” Ashenmacher said. “We’ve had it here for more than 20 years.”  

In addition to language and culture, the department has an educational component that trains people to work in Ojibwe cultural settings, like schools and reservations.  

“We also do a special outreach to the Ojibwe in our social work program,” Ashenmacher said. “The number of social workers needed by Native people and in Native communities around the country is much higher than the percentage of Native social workers. So we are trying to address that.”  

The study programs are not exclusive to Native Americans. “They are open to all cultures and racial groups,” Ashenmacher said. “If they just want to teach in an Ojibwe cultural setting, they can do that.” 

The department has a center that reaches out to Native students and is a gathering place with Ojibwe artwork and crafts. There is also a library collection of Ojibwe literature, and a former faculty member created the first CD for learning the language.  

The Ojibwe presence in North America was made highly visible in 1855 when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published the epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.”

Additional articles from the Catholic college special section:

Engaging with the world through foreign studies programs

Overseas faith journeys

Facts and figures on international studies

Promoting overseas study

College mission trip checklist

Benefits of study aborad indisputable, long-lasting