On a train headed for the U.S. State Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., third-year Northeastern student Drew McConnell overheard a group of Egyptian journalists bantering back and forth in Arabic.
McConnell, an international affairs and political science dual major, jumped right into the conversation, having spent three semesters learning Arabic at Northeastern and another two months on a language-based Dialogues of Civilization program to Egypt.
“We talked about Arab-American and Egyptian-American relations,” McConnell said, adding that his conversation with the visiting journalists became a focus of the scribes’ article on their trip to the United States. “We talked at a level that was higher than I was used to, but I am confident enough to approach people and know they will understand me and will want to engage me in conversation as much as I want to engage them.”
For McConnell and thousands of other students at Northeastern, learning how to speak a foreign language has become as important as studying the introductory courses in their majors. This fall, 1,450 students are taking at least one of 13 language courses, including Swahili, Northeastern’s latest addition to its language menu. Since the creation of the World Languages Center in 2007, the University has set new enrollment records in languages each semester.
Students can take up to six semesters of any language offered. Mastering a foreign language has become almost a necessity for the more globally aware Northeastern student, said Dennis Cokely, the director of the World Languages Center, adding that Northeastern also offers several novel language courses, including a Spanish class that focuses on medical vocabulary for health care professionals.
“The explosion of majors such as international affairs, which encourages students to explore the world, the tremendous growth of the Dialogue of Civilizations program and the increased number of students going abroad have combined to give us a student population that realizes that the way to succeed is by learning other languages and becoming familiar with other cultures,” said Coakley.
Sophomore international affairs major James Eggers said that learning Portuguese will increase his chances of working for the Latin American branch of Liberty Mutual after he graduates.
Though he’s only just begun to learn the language, he expects to go on a Dialogue program to Brazil next summer, where he’ll have the chance to live and interact with native speakers. Living with a Brazilian family, he’ll also soak up the region’s culture, history, politics and religion.
“Brazil is a rising country right now,” he said, “and the best opportunity I have for getting a job there is to continue to learn Portuguese.”
The cultural and linguistic immersion offered through the Dialogue of Civilizations program, study abroad and international co-op, enables Northeastern students to market themselves as leading candidates for co-op positions and jobs after graduation, said Denis Sullivan, director of the international affairs program and an early driver of the Dialogues program.
“Speaking a foreign language is one of those central skills that we must have,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many students get jobs after graduation when employers see that they went on a Dialogue to China and learned Chinese. So many organizations and corporations are hiring our students because of their language skills.”
Ketty Rosenfeld, director of the international co-op program, echoed Sullivan by pointing to the language experience that students in health sciences gain by working on co-op in Spanish-speaking hospitals and clinics.
“After using Spanish every day (on a job) for six months, students are certainly way ahead of many of their peers who only take Spanish in the classroom,” she said. “When they graduate, we know for sure that they’ll relate better with patients who are immigrants and who only speak Spanish.”
The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research hired McConnell as a co-op precisely because he had fluency in a foreign language, derived both in the classroom and in Egypt during his Dialogue of Civilizations experience.
After graduation, he hopes to become a military intelligence officer with a focus on American-Afghan relations. “With terrorist groups in the Middle East who are Arabic speaking, knowing the language becomes critical,” he said. “The best way to break into the government sector is to know a critical language.”