When parents are given a choice of primary and secondary schools for their children, schools with foreign language immersion programs can be some of the hottest draws. By learning not just literature and grammar, but also physics and philosophy in a foreign language, students are thought to develop a more expansive view of the world and be more intellectually and culturally nimble, as well as being able to speak fluently in two tongues.
This thinking is a large part of what has driven the number of foreign language immersion programs at the K-12 level to nearly double in the past decade, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics .
In an effort that some are calling the first program of its kind, Georgetown College, a Christian liberal arts college in Georgetown, Ky., is hoping the same high interest in foreign languages in K-12 schools can be translated to the postsecondary level. This fall, the 1,300-undergraduate college will welcome its first cohort of 15 students to its Inmersión en Español  program.
These students still will be able to pursue a major in any of the college's departments, but they will take about one-third of their core requirements in Spanish instead of English. Specifically, five of the courses that are part of Georgetown's Foundations and Core Program  will be offered in Spanish. They will include, at first, required courses in critical thinking, literature, philosophy, political science and mathematics. The courses will be taught, in large part, by professors who are versed in both Spanish and the core discipline. For example, the college recently hired a Ph.D. in Spanish who has a master's degree in philosophy.
While similar programs exist, such as one called languages across the curriculum (in which students who take, for example, a class in Modernist literature might read one of the works in the original French), the initiative at Georgetown is thought to be unique, said Emily Spinelli, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.
“Although there might be other colleges or universities that offer required general education courses in Spanish, I am not personally aware of them,” she wrote in an e-mail. “This new program at Georgetown College offers students a wonderful opportunity to improve their Spanish proficiency while simultaneously using the Spanish language to gain new knowledge and conduct research. Thus, these courses put Spanish on a par with English within the university curriculum because the language of instruction is secondary to the course content.”
The program at Georgetown is being pitched to three different demographics, with the college recruiting from these groups while they are still in high school.
One is the group of students whose primary language is English (and who did not hear or speak Spanish at home), but who have strong Spanish language skills. Perhaps they sought out an immersion program in high school and want to continue the experience at the collegiate level. While such students might have the grammatical and oral skills to major or minor in Spanish, their expectations have seemed, in recent years, to have drifted away from the traditional requirements of the foreign language program, said Adela Borrallo-Solís, assistant professor of Spanish, coordinator of the Spanish program and one of the forces behind the new initiative. “I believe that students have a very pragmatic approach to college and learning,” she said. “They need something they can apply to their real life.”
For such practical-minded students, traditional course requirements in culture, history and, especially, literature, seem to form a roadblock -- while interest in film courses is on the upswing, she said. The hard work of reading, say, Cervantes in the original Spanish seems to be more daunting than watching an Almodóvar film. “We have a generation that's more visual and more into computers,” said Borrallo-Solís. “I don't know how much these kids read.”
Officials at Georgetown hope that the Inmersión students who take their required critical thinking course in Spanish instead of English (in which they will read a poem in the original Spanish instead of one by an English Romantic) will be exposed to work in the original language -- and gain insight into the wider culture that produced the language they are studying. They also hope that students who eventually travel abroad (the college has programs in Madrid, Seville and Valencia) will take courses in the native tongue while they study in Spain.
The second group that Georgetown officials are hoping to capture is composed of "heritage speakers" -- students who may have been raised in a home in which Spanish is spoken, but do not speak it as their primary language. The number of such students in the 150- to 200-mile radius from which the college draws much of its enrollment is likely growing. While the percentage of Hispanic Kentuckians is still quite small -- about 3 percent of the state's population -- this number has doubled since 2000 , according to Census data. In part, the college started the new program in an effort to be more responsive to the growing Hispanic population in the area, said Rosemary Allen, Georgetown's provost. “It opens your eyes to how your institution changes going from a monoculture to a multicultural population,” she said.
In some ways, these two groups of students have opposite strengths, said Borrallo-Solís. Native English speakers without any Spanish language in their background tend to have strong written and reading chops, but, she said, fairly weak oral ones. Heritage speakers, on the other hand, may be orally fluent but have gaps in their writing and reading. That is why students applying to join the cohort must pass both a written exam and an oral interview, said Borrallo-Solís.
The third group of students expected to join the cohort is, of course, that of native Spanish speakers.
Georgetown is still assembling the first cohort, said Allen. So far, all are either heritage speakers or native Spanish speakers. When asked whether this demonstration of interest, at least in the early going, suggested that the college might have unintentionally started a new English as a Second Language program rather than an immersion one, Allen said, “There is some concern that it's the route it could take,” but the key will be in finding the right balance of students.
Borrallo-Solís, however, said she wasn't worried at all since the most intense interest she has received has been from native English speakers, many of them graduates or upperclassmen who said they wished they could take their required core courses over again -- in Spanish. “I truly think this will appeal to English speakers in the future,” she said.
Georgetown officials said they have been to national conferences of foreign language teachers to pitch the idea and that they have generated strong interest among speakers of many different foreign languages. “It's one of those ideas that's a no-brainer once someone tells you about it,” Borrallo-Solís said.