Since Georgetown University’s founding in 1789, the school has encouraged students and faculty members to broaden their worldviews and dedicate themselves to others, regardless of cultural and linguistic differences.
Back then, the university offered language courses in Spanish, French and English for nonnative speakers, even publishing a pamphlet for prospective students in each of those three languages in 1789 to reflect the university’s multilingual demographic.
From John Carroll to Fr. Edmund Walsh, S.J., Georgetown’s leaders have argued that being people for others requires members of the Georgetown community to cultivate an understanding of others by traversing linguistic barriers.
Today, Georgetown has maintained and amplified its dedication to being a linguistically diverse community. Despite increased isolationist sentiments in domestic politics the university continues to be a place where faculty and students are encouraged to explore the rich intersections of culture, language and learning.
A History of Internationalism
As World War I drew to a close in 1919, Georgetown further built upon its global emphasis through the establishment of the School of Foreign Service under the direction of Walsh himself. Intended to prepare students for international service, the school offered eight languages at the time of its formation: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic.
“We have, in fact, much less concern for numbers than we have as to the caliber and trustworthiness of the training these men will have who shall leave this school and enter foreign service,” Walsh said when revealing his plans for the SFS to faculty and students in 1919.
In 1949, the SFS founded the Institute of Languages and Linguistics, which offered programs in 30 languages. Its rigorous teaching system was revolutionary for its time because it utilized Simultaneous Interpretation, a process pioneered by the United Nations that allows people to communicate directly across language boundaries, right from its Electronic Learning Laboratory, according to university archives.
This commitment to languages is still present in the SFS today; students must be enrolled in a language course each semester until they reach advanced proficiency as determined by an oral exam proctored by faculty from that language department.
“Part of our goal is to have students that are very aware of and engaged in the world,” Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs Daniel Byman said in an interview with The Hoya. “When a student graduates from the School of Foreign Service, they can really function in a foreign language in a professional setting.”
Georgetown’s emphasis on language stems from its dedication to being an international institution. The emphasis on languages in curriculum of SFS is mirrored by that of the College, which requires students to demonstrate proficiency in a language through the intermediate level, and the McDonough School of Business, which requires its International Business Regional Studies and International Political Economy and Business majors to complete the equivalent of an intermediate language level.
According to Byman, Georgetown’s student body also exhibits this commitment to language immersion and cultural studies.
“I think the size of the student body at Georgetown that’s interested in these issues and that participates in intellectual or club or other activities that are focused on the world is really stupendous,” Byman said. “It marks our campus in a way I really admire as a teacher, not as a dean, that makes our classes special”
A Growing Plurality of Languages
The College currently offers programs in 20 languages through the Faculty of Language and Linguistics; 10 languages are offered as majors and 13 are offered as minors. In 2016, 5.1 percent of all bachelor’s degrees conferred by the university stemmed from this department, according to the Common Data Set initiative.
The department continuously adds new areas of study, as well as develops the language programs already in place. The newest addition to the language curriculum will be courses in Hindi, which are planned to begin fall 2018. The SFS offered Hindi in 2007, but cut the program after a year because of budget restrictions. This addition comes just two years after the SFS began allowing students to pursue language minors through the College.
The Polish program began in 2002 as part of the department of Slavic languages and the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. Pioneered by associate professor Svetlana Grenier, who joined the department of Slavic languages in 1991, the Polish program is one of the youngest language programs on campus. In recent years, the current Director of Polish Studies Iwona Sadowska, who also teaches Russian language and Slavic literature, observed a sudden surge of students desiring to learn Polish.
“When I ask why the students decided to learn Polish, the answers vary from Polish being linguistically rich, complex and fascinating to a language increasingly popular both within the region and outside,” Sadowska wrote in an email statement to The Hoya. “In England and Wales, Polish has become the most commonly spoken nonnative language.”
The rich nature of Georgetown’s Polish program extends beyond the classroom walls. Like many of the language programs at Georgetown, the program actively engages in the intersections between language and community through exhibitions, film screenings and guest lecture events in the Intercultural Center Galleria.
The Polish Studies program and the Polish Association of Georgetown have co-sponsored events enjoyed by members of both the Polish community at Georgetown and the larger university community. These events included guest lectures with former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski in 2006 and former U.S. Ambassadors to Poland Stephen Mull (SFS ’80) and Victor Ashe.
Additionally, Sadowska noted the importance of language at Georgetown as a means of community for native speakers.
“It is natural that students look for spaces on campus that promote the language they grew up listening to. That linguistic link between their homes and the Hilltop is often the only constant part on campus while everything else is new,” Sadowska wrote.
With more than a dozen culture and language groups on campus, language at Georgetown extends beyond the classroom, also acting as the basis for community. One such student group is the Georgetown University Russian Association, which arose from founder Cailin Brady’s (COL ’20) desire to fill a language gap on campus.
“I came to Georgetown as a freshman super excited to participate in Russian department life and I just assumed there was Russian club because it’s Georgetown,” Brady said in an interview with The Hoya, alongside fellow GURA executive board members Oksana Reed (COL ’19) and Camilla Aitbayev (COL ’19).
Brady soon discovered that Georgetown lacked a Russian student group. So, in spring 2017, she formed GURA, which was quickly approved by the Student Activities Commission.
Language-related student groups at Georgetown, however, are not limited to native speakers or those currently learning the language. In fact, many student groups, like the Asian American Student Association and the GU French Cultural Association, engage with members across a number of cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
“Most of our members’ parents are from Russia or they are Russian themselves, or take the language here, but we do have quite a number of people who are interested in the culture,” Brady said. “It’s not only people coming from Russia but a lot of the countries that have spoken Russian historically,” Aitbayev added.
Other student groups, such as the Latin American Student Association or the South Asian Society, use dance or artistic activities to celebrate the intersection of linguistic culture and the communities.
One such event is Reventón Latino. Established in 2006 to showcase Latinx diversity through the music, dance and social justice, Reventón is sponsored by over 10 on-campus organizations, including the Georgetown University Center for Latin American Studies and the Caribbean Culture Circle. On March 17, Reventón brought together the rich traditions of a diverse range of Latin American and Caribbean cultures and ultimately raised $5000 toward the rebuilding of hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico.
Reventón is not the only cultural event on campus dedicated to social justice through the celebration of diversity. It is also not the only one that does so through dance.
Rangila, sponsored by the SAS, is a showcase of South Asian dance styles held each fall in Gaston Hall. Similar to Reventón, Rangila utilizes its celebration of community in diversity for a social good. In 2017, all proceeds from the event went toward Lend-A-Hand India, an nonprofit with the goal of spreading vocational education and development to underpriviledged youth in India.
Whether through student clubs or campus events, language and culture work hand in hand on campus not only as a means to enrich cross-cultural dialogue but also as a tool for amplifying social justice.
Looking Toward the Future
Language is a constantly evolving part of the academic and cultural community at Georgetown. As international and domestic demographics change, so do the means by which individuals communicate.
While Georgetown has plans to add languages like Hindi in the future, the university is still lacking in many critical languages from South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. At present, the only opportunity for students to take coursework in languages like Hindi, Burmese, Indonesian and Vietnamese is through classes offered by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies located on Massachusetts Avenue. These courses do not count toward a Georgetown student’s GPA.
Additionally, it can be difficult to take multiple language courses at once, which is why a group of students is pushing for the FLL to add one-credit language courses.
According to Byman, this deficit stems not from a lack of desire to provide these languages, but a lack of resources.
“I want to make sure that it’s a language that we can offer through proficiency,” Byman said. “This is something that I personally support but is something that’s very much a resource issue at the university.”
While resources substantially handicap the implementation of new curricula in any department, students continue to request new language programs. Sadowska hopes the aspirations of Georgetown students will shape the future of language curriculum.
“If we have students who are strongly committed to contribute to the study of a particular language, I don’t see a reason why we should not offer it at Georgetown,” Sadowska said. “The university is for our students. They should be involved the decision-making process regarding their studies.”