What’s up with languages at USM?

Humans use, or have used in recent history, about 8,000 languages. Among these are Abenaki, ASL (American Sign Language), Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Latin, Somali, Spanish, and Wolastoqey (or ‘Maliseet’). Three of these eleven originated in North America, three are on the National Security Education Program’s critical languages list, one is the ancestral version of three of the others, and one is a ‘sister’ of English.* One thing the eleven have in common is that all are among the languages offered at the University of Southern Maine. As mentioned in a recent Portland Press Herald article (1/28/19), USM’s language offerings have recently expanded. But that’s only part of the story.

The language programs at USM are housed in the Linguistics Department. Linguistics is the science of language. Linguists study how language works, how children learn it, how adults learn new languages, and how language evolved in our species. As a natural part of human beings, language is much like breathing or walking. It works mainly without our even noticing and is based on complex processes that operate mostly at a level we’re unaware of. For example, one of the many things your brain is doing as you read this sentence is looking up every word in your mental lexicon – a kind of giant dictionary you have in your mind. 

Linguists most often do their research based on just a few languages, or even just one, and are therefore not necessarily themselves multilingual. But all linguists know a lot about many languages – they know, for example, that the article (“the”) comes at the end of the noun in Icelandic, and that Swahili verbs indicate both who is doing the action and who is receiving it. Some linguists are also fluent in several languages, especially if their research is in areas like bilingualism or revitalization of endangered languages.

The Linguistics Department puts this scientifically-informed, broad-based perspective on language to work in the teaching and learning of languages. Our language programs also connect to the local community. American Sign Language students interact with the local Deaf community to fulfill a community engagement requirement that increases from the first to the sixth levels of the language. Arabic, Chinese, the Wabanaki languages (Abenaki and Wolastoqey), and Somali are part of a new community/critical languages program. We offer Arabic and Chinese every year, and various other community languages on a rotating basis. Some, such as Somali, may eventually be expanded into regular offerings. The Abenaki and Somali courses are each co-taught by a linguist together with a local native speaker of the language.

Students majoring in linguistics at USM pursue a wide variety of careers, including interpreting/translating, speech-language pathology and audiology, teaching world languages, teaching English to speakers of other languages, and language technology (computational linguistics). USM offers a B.A. in (general) linguistics, as well as degrees in linguistics with concentrations in speech and language science, ASL/English interpreting, ASL linguistics, French linguistics, and Spanish linguistics. Students in the French and Spanish linguistics concentrations can also opt for K-12 world language teacher certification. ASL is USM’s most popular language, with over 125 students taking ASL language courses every semester. USM’s interpreting program was one of the first in the country to receive national accreditation.

The Portland Press Herald story reported that “cuts to foreign language programs have accelerated significantly nationwide since the 2007 recession.” What was omitted from the article is that USM is bucking this national trend, expanding language offerings and language-related degrees in unique ways that serve our students and our community.

*Abenaki, ASL, and Wolastoqey originated in North America; Arabic, Chinese, and Somali are on the NSEP list; Latin is the ancestral version – the parent language – of French, Italian, and Spanish; and German is English’s ‘sister’ historically.