Citizens of the World

World Languages are a cornerstone of the new general education program
Photo of Krismelly Grullon Rojas from the Center for Diversity and Inclusiveness

By studying languages, you can communicate across cultures, and you can understand more. The more you learn, the better.

Studying a language that is not your own is nothing less than a world-changing experience.

“When you learn a new language, you engage with a new culture on its own terms, and not on your terms,” said Professor Rala Diakite of the Humanities Department. “That allows a really different viewpoint. This type of learning, especially in the first year of university, is really foundational not only for a student’s academic and professional success, but as a human being and citizen of the world.”

Diakite, who teaches beginning and intermediate Italian as well as French, said she was gratified to see world languages embedded in the university’s new general education curriculum. “We’re really hoping this will allow many more students to experience language learning, draw them in and help them continue.”

Professor Karina Bautista of the Humanities Department teaches a variety of Spanish courses, for beginning and intermediate speakers. She said the exposure is critical to giving students skills to thrive in their lives and careers. 

“It makes a huge difference in communication and the message students receive about their responsibilities as citizens of the world,” Bautista said. “There’s a huge difference between not knowing a second language and processing information about the world, and knowing a second language and processing information about the world.”

There are also practical, career-minded benefits to studying world languages, the professors said, beyond the other principles involved. 

In the past 10 years or so, the number of jobs available with being bilingual as one of the qualifications has doubled,” Diakite said. “This is true for any number of jobs at any number of levels, even in the service industry. There’s also a whole other more advanced level in political science, finance, world health, journalism, travel and hospitality. There’s just a range of options where those skill levels will help students.” 

This includes students who already speak a second language. Through the university’s new heritage language program, students can build on their existing skills and forge deeper connections to their families and cultures.

Krismelly Grullon Rojas ‘22 has found her own horizons broadened, even as a native Spanish speaker. She came to the U.S. with her family from the Dominican Republic and settled in the city of Lawrence seven years ago, and had to learn English as a freshman in high school. It was a challenging time.

Rojas, now majoring in early childhood education, said learning the more formal aspects of her  first language has been enriching. While she knows many of the conventions of spoken Spanish as a native speaker, she has gleaned a better understanding of its grammatical rules and construction. 

She hopes to take her training and experience back to Lawrence to teach. “There’s a high percentage of people of color, and I want them to see a teacher that looks like them, that knows their experiences,” she said. “I went through that personally. It’s in my heart, I want to help those kids. I completely understand what they’re going through.”

Rojas is active on campus, serving as vice president of the Latin American Student Organization, part of the Latinx Heritage Month planning committee, and working in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. She said all students benefit from studying another language.

“You can communicate more with people, you can communicate across cultures, and you can understand more,” Rojas said. “The more you learn, the better.”

Katie McLaughlin ‘21 agrees. McLaughlin said an 8th grade Spanish class in her home town of Reading was a pivotal moment in her life. “It was the first class I ever enjoyed,” she said. “I always doubted myself, but this was clearly something I was good at.”

She studied Spanish throughout high school, and took it on as a minor at Fitchburg State. Through her language study and professors, McLaughlin said she was able to get a deeper understanding of the world. “I never thought I’d be writing my graduation thesis on immigration policy,” she said. “It was a whole learning experience. I’ve never immigrated anywhere, I’ve never been oppressed. But when you understand language you understand culture.”

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Contact magazine.