Losing Our Languages

World language studies in United States higher education is quickly becoming a relic of the past. 

    Amid the undeniable shift in academic priority towards science, math, engineering, and data science, institutions of higher education across America are putting second language studies on the back burner. In some cases, they’re not being given priority at all. 

    In just the last two years, Vanderbilt University has canceled its graduate level programs in French, Spanish, and Portuguese language studies. Some Vanderbilt academics think that similar programs in German and Russian, even in English, could soon follow. In the French department, current graduate students (of which there are only one or two admitted per school year) will finish out their PhD programs by themselves while the university transitions towards undergraduate education as the sole priority (if you can call it that). 

    We could be moving towards a point where world languages will just be another box to check for students, another AXLE requirement to fulfill, and nothing else. Without graduate students in the languages, we could soon cease to have professors in the languages, and thus we could lose valuable seminars on world literatures and cultures. If students at Vanderbilt University, one of the fifteen best universities in America, are not reading Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Cervantes and other works in their original languages, then who will? 

Besides just classes, other key aspects of Vanderbilt’s world language programming have been affected. Vanderbilt recently announced the closure of the McTyeire International House and its reassignment to traditional residential dorm spacing. Although Vanderbilt administration claims they are closing McTyeire as part of a larger effort to “enhance” education in the languages at Vanderbilt, it is clear that they really have no plan on how to best reimagine language programming. It is common knowledge among Vanderbilt undergraduates living in Residential Colleges that academic programming in buildings like Zeppos and E. Bronson Ingram (EBI) is, on average, not well attended. As a senior representative on the EBI college council, I have seen first-hand how difficult it is to attract residents to optional academic events when everyone is already so busy with their own lives. Trying to shoehorn a brand new language program into the Residential Colleges is unlikely to work at a level anywhere near that of McTyeire, and the administration knows this. 

Another threatened component of world language programming at Vanderbilt is study abroad. In 2018, Vanderbilt unexpectedly canceled its “Vanderbilt in France” program in Aix-en-Provence, France, which had stood as one of the university’s hallmark study abroad programs for half a century. This program allowed Vanderbilt professors and faculty in French to work directly with students in the French Riviera – living, learning, and speaking together. To the dismay of undergraduates in French, subsequent attempts to replace the program have been less than exceptional. The Global Education Office (GEO) first offered a “corporate” program in Toulouse, France, through the study abroad company Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). The French department swiftly deemed the Toulouse program to be unsuitable for French majors as it lacked a strong academic component aligned with Vanderbilt’s standards. The department responded by attempting to negotiate a partnership with Columbia University’s study abroad program in Paris, but legal disagreements delayed the partnership until after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, many French students in the Class of 2021 and 2022 were given the option of studying abroad at a second-rate program (at Vanderbilt tuition rates), or not at all. 

The United States continues to grow more and more diverse as war, civil unrest, and the climate crisis displace populations in the Global South and beyond. Spanish, French, Mandarin – and, yes, even Russian – are not really “foreign” languages in the United States, but rather domestic languages that we unfortunately choose to ignore, even at the highest levels of education. Vanderbilt must do better and prioritize language learning if we want to remain a prominent university for the years to come.

11 thoughts on “Losing Our Languages

  1. Hi Drew, I really appreciated this blog post! I’ve definitely noticed (and questioned) how Vanderbilt administration has quietly closed many of the language-learning programs you noted in your article. It’s normal for universities (like any business) to reevaluate where they are investing their resources from time to time, but it’s strange how a university desperately seeking to prove its “top tier” status is cutting, not adding, academic programs. Particularly given the heavily Southern, white, and privileged make-up of this university, students should be provided with ample opportunities to learn about cultures and languages other than their own. The lack of academic support for language and culture-based programs is concerning, given how important cultivating global knowledge and skillsets is to success in an increasingly interconnected world. I also agreed with your point on how language programs offer a much-needed window into other cultures, and can only hope that Vanderbilt chooses to invest in high-quality, extensive language programming in the future.


    1. Thank you, Rachel, for your comment! And thank you in particular for pointing out how the demographics of the Vanderbilt undergraduate student body plays a role in these decisions as well. So much of the US today unfortunately remains insular and sheltered from other cultures, and languages are an important barrier in creating that disconnect. Like you say, I hope the Vanderbilt administration realizes this sooner than later.


  2. I really appreciated this post! I hadn’t been aware of or noticed any of these closures before, so it really opened my eyes. I also think it made me re-evaluate the way I view language programs (frankly, to me it’s primarily been an AXLE requirement) and made me reconsider. While the move by Vanderbilt to devalue language certainly disrespects the cultural significance of language, I wonder if it’s a wise business decision either? As the world is increasingly interconnected, I can see knowledge of a “foreign” culture/language becoming a more and more desirable asset. I’m curious what even the “business” rationale is for this defunding?


    1. Thanks Sam! It does seem like it’s a business decision, unfortunately. Vanderbilt would rather pay millions of dollars on athletic training facilities and new buildings than provide basic funding for students and professors in the languages. I’m glad this made you reconsider studying a world language!


  3. Hi Drew! I really like your article. I totally agree that Vanderbilt is moving in the wrong direction with its language programs, and I’ve been really dismayed by their decision to move away from McTyeire and graduate language programs. I find it so fascinating because language developing is such an important skill for the modern world, and college should be a great place to learn languages. My own experience trying to learn French has been very disappointing, and the lack of out of class resources to expand your language skills is a big part of why. Do you know why Vanderbilt might be doing this, and if other similar quality institutions are also moving away from language acquisition?


    1. Thanks Brynn! From what I have seen, Vanderbilt is one of the first universities in the upper-level of American schools to cancel its graduate programs in multiple, prominent languages. (Other schools paused admissions during COVID-19 for a year or two but have since resumed.) It is a shame because we are competing with schools like Princeton and Stanford in so many other fields, and in languages we decided to move in the other direction. I am sorry to hear that your experience with French classes at Vanderbilt have not met your standards. Having overworked graduate students teach these classes is itself a part of the problem.


  4. Hi Drew,
    Thank you for a great post! I actually read the Hustler article you hyperlinked in your blog last month and wondered about some of the same things that you mentioned. Specifically, you ask the question: if students at a top 15 university aren’t being taught languages, reading various literature, and learning about different cultures, who will? I wondered the same thing. You also mention that the majority of us choose to ignore language. Do you think this is the fault of Vanderbilt itself? Or, is it the fault of the individual? Or, does it have to do with the nature of society, specifically in a world where people are so concerned about finding a well-paying job? While I do think this issue is a small scale topic (and something that Vanderbilt ought to play a role in addressing,) I also believe that it is a reflective of a much bigger societal issue and the way we are taught to value education that will lead to “success” (which lately seems to only be referred to in terms of finances.)


    1. Thanks Rachel! I think the reason so many of us choose to ignore language is that we are in the privileged position of being English speakers in a world where English is the global language of politics, commerce, and media. Moreover, we grew up in a country (most of us) where English was all we learned from a young age. The American mentality is that English is the standard and that other languages are unnecessary and foreign, when that really is not and should not be the case.


  5. Thank you sharing this with us, Drew! I found this really thorough and informative, especially as a sophomore who wasn’t on campus at the time of a lot of these changes, many of which the administration likes to fold into the big excuse of COVID. Your closing comments about the changing demographics of both Vanderbilt and the U.S. were particularly insightful, and I notice that as I go around campus. In the EBI dining hall alone, I’ve heard countless languages spoken amongst friends, on the phone with family, and by language learners trying to practice. We can’t put language learning into context and understand its value without understanding the people that speak those languages and write in those languages, and closing language programs seems to send a sign that being connected with people who speak different languages across the world no longer really matters. I’ve personally found non-American novels to be most of my favorite to read, but what will the translation industry even look like in a couple of decades if we continue on this path? I hope the university sees how damaging it could be to the students and global relations as a whole, and chooses to self-correct.


  6. I really enjoyed this article. I was also very surprised to see Vanderbilt scaling back its language programming, especially knowing many of my peers had entered Vanderbilt with the hopes of being a part of the McTeiyre living learning community to enhance their language skills.
    The title originally reminded me of “Super Sad True Love Story” and how there was a loss of verbal communication in favor of the use of technology. Although here you are talking about a more Vanderbilt specific issue, I have to wonder if this is a smaller example of STEM pursuits overtaking the importance of communication.
    I was curious if you think this connects to any larger trends outside of Vanderbilt, or if you have any speculations to what has caused this shift in priorities?


  7. I’m definitely sad to see the devaluation of language at Vanderbilt, especially since I entered the school with the partial hope of entering the McTyeire program. The loss of language demonstrates a lack of willingness to understand other cultures as well as an unwillingness to overcome challenges in developing other ways of thinking. Personally, I think there needs to be a total revamping of language education in the United States, so that people learn their language as a second language rather than as random class.

    I love your connection between the lack of language education and the ignorance of domestic languages. I feel like this further demonstrates a devaluation of cultures that don’t speak English.


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