LOS ANGELES — UCLA senior Yumeng Zhuang fell in love with physics and philosophy as a high school student in her native China. That passion led her to Albert Einstein and Immanuel Kant — and then to a desire to study German so she could read their works as originally written.
But her parents weren't thrilled, pushing her to perfect her English instead.
"They said German is not a useful language because not many people speak it," said Zhuang, a physics major. "So I started self-studying it secretly."
Derided as the study of "dead white men" by some, college European language and culture programs have seen better days. German, Italian, French — once dominant after two world wars sparked demand for fluency — gave way to the meteoric rise in Spanish and Asian languages, reflecting demographics and the global and cultural interests of 21st century students. The fastest-growing language these days at UCLA? Korean, a reflection of the K-pop culture.
Bucking national trends that have closed down many European language programs, UCLA is doubling down on its commitment to European studies by redefining it with a 2021 twist. Germanic, French, Italian and Scandinavian languages are being merged into a single department with a transcultural bent. Perspectives from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America — areas touched by Europe's colonial legacies — will be injected into a new way of studying foreign language.
"Paying families are looking for students to do training that provides them with jobs," said Dominic Thomas, a UCLA professor of French and Francophone studies. "Students often are facing real pragmatic questions from their parents, which is: 'What the hell are you going to do with a French degree?"'
The new European languages and transcultural studies department will more deeply examine such hot-button issues as immigration, racism and human rights. New curricular tracks will offer specialties — and marketable skills — in digital technology, the environment, urban affairs and medical and health issues.
An earlier generation of Italian majors might have confined their scholarship to the language, history and culture of Italy, primarily through the printed word. But under the new direction, Thomas said, students may study the migration and refugee crisis that hit Europe in 2015 through films in English, French, German and Italian and compare Germany's welcoming response, Britain's Brexit and the Trump administration's restrictive actions.
They can gain sophisticated digital skills analyzing 55,000 digitalized testimonies of survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides through text mining and sound analysis in multiple foreign languages.
The aim, Thomas said, is to equip students with bilingual prowess, cultural literacy and the kind of analytical and writing skills that can help them gain an edge in graduate school and careers in law, business, diplomacy, education, the arts or journalism.
"What's important is that what we teach is more relevant to the world that we live in and reflective of the world through its diversity of subject and geography and people than in the past where, let's face it, these departments taught [about] ... dead white men," said Thomas, who has been named chair of the new department.
But traditionalists need not worry: UCLA does not plan to boot Shakespeare from the classroom. The idea is to broaden the curriculum, not narrow it, said David Schaberg, dean of humanities.
"The students who arrive in our classroom have cultural legacies that connect to all parts of the world," Schaberg said. "We have no business teaching them that the humanities is represented by one part of one continent."
UCLA is not alone in grappling with challenges to European studies but has faced them with "innovation, not defensiveness," said Paula M. Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Assn. in New York. Nationally, U.S. colleges and universities cut 651 foreign language programs between 2013 and 2016, with the biggest drops in French, Spanish, German and Italian, according to the association's 2019 study. Enrollments in French courses declined by nearly 36% and in German by 40% between 1990 and 2016.
But they skyrocketed for Asian languages: increases of more than 8,000% for Japanese and Chinese — and more than 53,000% for Korean — during that same time period. UCLA has experienced similar trends, with strong growth in Japanese, Chinese and Korean, the most popular languages studied after Spanish and French, and sharp declines in German and Italian.
Nationally, Spanish remains by far the most commonly taught language in U.S. colleges and universities, with more than 712,000 enrollments in 2016, an increase of 33% since 1990.
Krebs said colleges that respond to student interests and needs have managed to keep their European language programs afloat. Montclair State University in New Jersey, for instance, has linked its Italian program to Italian businesses in New York, where students use the language in practical ways through internships. Elon University in North Carolina offers French courses that focus on social justice, humor, business cultures and theater.
Interest in languages usually follow global politics, economics and culture, Thomas said. The study of Russian blossomed after the then-Soviet Union opened to perestroika and glasnost. Arabic enrollments began to grow after the 9/11 attacks. The rising economic might of Japan and China fueled interest in those Asian languages, while the current mania to learn Korean is thought to be driven by the popularity of K-pop and Korean dramas, Thomas said.
Kalani Michell is emblematic of the new approach. Michell, a 37-year-old assistant professor of Germanic languages at UCLA who describes herself as a native Californian of Mexican American and Australian descent, was pulled into the field by her love of German film.
Hired in fall 2019, her first course looked at how proponents of Germany's Bauhaus art and design school escaped Nazism and spread its influence across the globe, including Los Angeles. Students use their German language skills to access the full range of materials about the Bauhaus movement — an immersion of fine arts, craft and design — to explore Germany's cultural impact beyond its borders, she said. Another course broadened the scope of German film, including more genres, women and people of color.
Recently, white supremacy in the United States has ignited curiosity among students about Europe, where fascism exploded a century ago, said Todd Presner, a UCLA professor of Germanic languages and comparative literature.
"I've never seen more students come to me and [say] we need to understand this. What happened in the 1920s and 1930s, and not just in Germany, but obviously in Spain and Italy?" Presner said. "Suddenly you realize, wait a second, these things migrate across borders and that's why transcultural matters so much. It doesn't stay in a nation. It doesn't stay in a time period either."
UCLA faculty first began considering a merger of the different European language departments in 2009, when the campus was facing an unprecedented budget crisis following major state funding cuts triggered by the Great Recession. No action was taken then, but another effort at consolidation was launched in 2017 as budgets continued to shrink, retiring faculty were not replaced and a disconnect grew between the traditional approach to European studies and today's multicultural, interconnected world.
Rhea Shetty, a UCLA senior, said she was excited about the new approach. "There's so much potential for collaboration," she said.
Shetty, the daughter of Indian immigrants, ended up studying German because it was the only language besides Spanish offered at her middle school in eastern Washington. She was quickly enthralled by the language, thanks to an excellent instructor and high school study-abroad session in Berlin.
Both Shetty and Zhuang say that studying German has opened their vistas to a new culture, trained their minds as they mastered the intricacies of a new language and highlighted their shared humanity with people an ocean away.
And, they said, the language might even help their careers. Zhuang is applying to graduate schools in Germany, aiming for a possible career as a physics professor, and Shetty hopes to specialize in global health, learning from the German healthcare and welfare systems.
"We have an ethnocentric view of who we can learn from," Shetty said about Americans, "but we can learn so much from other countries."
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