Connecting the World Through Language

By Brandon Brown
Jambar Contributor

The Department of World Languages and Cultures at Youngstown State University is one of the most culturally diverse departments at the university, offering students the opportunity to learn over 10 languages. 

The department offers classes in Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Italian, German, Greek, Latin, American Sign Language and hopes to offer Hebrew in the future.

All languages have one-year curriculum plans, and Spanish and Italian are also offered as individual  majors. The department also offers Spanish and Italian education as majors. 

John Sarkissian, chair of the Department of World Languages and Cultures, is excited about the department’s growth in the past few years. 

“We can’t pretend that studying foreign language is not a challenging undertaking for students, but it can be very rewarding and fun in the end,” Sarkissian said. “You learn other forms of expression, thought and communication in the end.”

He said the department offers many languages, but it’s limited in the amount of majors it can offer because there are so many languages taught. 

Madeleine Clendenin, a French and Arabic professor at YSU, encourages students to take a language course because of how the classes engage them. 

“Foreign languages open people’s minds to language, culture and people of other nationalities,” Clendenin said. “Studies show being bilingual also expands brain function.”

The department recently brought back German courses after not offering them for the past 10 years. 

Rachel Faerber-Ovaska, a German professor at YSU, is trying to change the way teachers teach and students learn to help classes engage better. She wanted to try new things because she said she believes literacy no longer means just reading and writing.

According to Faerber-Ovaska, digital and media literacy are necessary in an evolving learning landscape, and including audio and visual media is critical.

“We are moving away from the textbook and really customizing the learning experience,” she said.

Her classes are implementing real world materials such as virtual reality 360-degree videos, news stories, photographs and more to be in step with modern literacy practices. 

Faerber-Ovaska said she hopes embracing new teaching skills will increase enrollment in the world language classes. 

Clendenin said she has noticed enrollment dropping in her classes, especially in her Arabic classes. 

While this could be attributed to the overall decline in university enrollment, Clendenin believes this issue is more serious. 

“We live in a global economy now, so it is becoming even more important we are ready to adapt to how the world is changing,” Clendenin said. “Arabic is seen as a difficult language to learn, and I would say it is different, not difficult.”

Faerber-Ovaska said she believes enrollment issues run even deeper.

“We need more understanding in the United States for other ways of thinking and respect for all the different cultures we have,” she said.

“Foreign language is steroids for a student’s capacity to respect and understand other cultures here in the United States,” Faerber-Ovaska added.

Enrollment in a foreign language course is not required by all majors at YSU. Those studying for a Bachelor of Arts are required to take one year of a language, while students obtaining a degree in business or engineering are not. 

Taking language courses is defined as a degree requirement and not a university general education requirement, so it is not mandatory for all students.

“It is beneficial for students to seek out taking a foreign language, but with such rigid course requirements, it is sometimes difficult for students to fit those classes into their schedules,” Sarkissian said.

Across the board, the department would like to see a foreign language required for all students entering YSU. 

“On the practical side, a foreign language can be a benefit in employment and in some cases can directly affect someone’s attraction to employers in the job market,” Sarkissian said.

Clendenin said it’s popular for students in the world language education programs to go to other countries to teach English, and even one year of taking a world language could be beneficial for adapting to an unfamiliar culture.

Last year, the department’s name was changed from foreign language to world languages and cultures.

“Other languages should not be foreign. They are just world languages, and by learning them we get connected to the world,” Faerber-Ovaska said.

Those interested in taking a language class can visit YSU’s various language clubs or go to international coffee hour every Friday at 5 p.m. in Jones Hall.