We are not shying away from the new,” says Paul A. Schroeder Rodríguez, Spanish department chair. “We are embracing it.”

He’s talking about burgeoning changes in how Spanish is taught at Amherst. They cut to the heart of language instruction itself. They also reframe how the culture of Spanish-speaking peoples gets taught. (Preview: a greater emphasis on Latin American and U.S. Latinx cultures.)

Parallel alterations are playing out in the College’s other language departments, especially French. And all this is happening as American higher education hits refresh on language pedagogy.

The impact is greatest in Spanish because of the sheer numbers: it is the most studied language in the United States, with 50 percent of college students who take language classes choosing Spanish. French is a distant second, at 12 percent, followed by American Sign Language and German.

When it came to rethinking the major in 2016, the Spanish professors at Amherst looked to, among others, the German professors at Emory University, who’d written incisively about revamping their own department. “It is no secret that collegiate foreign language education has been leading a bifurcated existence for decades,” the Emory study declares. That bifurcation can be summed up as “language first, content second.” Students had to master the tongue to some degree before they could study the culture.

The new thinking is to absorb the culture while absorbing the language, not after. “Grammar is now the means to an end,” explains Sony Coráñez Bolton, assistant professor of Spanish. “It was frankly boring when we used to do it the other way around.” Adds Lecturer Carmen C. Granda, “Now culture is in the curriculum every day.”

Even in the most introductory language courses, for example, Amherst students will now engage with short stories, videos and poems from Mexico, Spain, Panama—any of the world’s Spanish-speaking countries.

Language learning will also be animated by a new digital textbook based on this cultural approach. It links to a service that facilitates conversation practice with native speakers. Students at Amherst, for instance, can Skype with those from Managua to Montevideo and beyond, choosing fresh locales and conversationalists each week.

Amherst has added another face-to-face way to go over the language: hosting Fulbright language teaching assistants. This year’s three FTLAs teaching Spanish come from Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay.

Half of U.S. college-level language students choose Spanish. Above, a lesson on festivals in Spanish-speaking countries.

Spanish has the second-largest number of native speakers in the world (after Mandarin Chinese). At Amherst, 14 percent of students identify as Hispanic/Latinx. They have a wide array of language proficiencies, and the curriculum responds to that reality, including in Assistant Professor Jeannette Sánchez-Naranjo’s course “Owning the Bilingual Self.”

Changes are afoot in study abroad as well. “We used to say we encouraged our students to study abroad. Now we expect them to do so,” says Schroeder Rodríguez, noting that immersion is crucial to advancing in the language. Professors are also traveling with students, such as those enrolled in the course “Puerto Rico: Diaspora Nation.”

A grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation enabled the Spanish evaluation process. Other departments that have undergone similar processes or are about to follow suit include geology, economics, mathematics and statistics, and law, jurisprudence and social thought.

Meanwhile, Amherst’s other language departments are exploring their own modifications. French is including more works for analysis by Francophone authors and thinkers outside of France; has updated its video teaching sources (as in Spanish, they’re culturally linked); and has added studies of contemporary social movements (such as France’s “Yellow Jacket” protests).

German is looking into revamping its introductory language course by adopting a more topical (and less expensive) textbook. And Russian has introduced a capstone project that involves selecting and studying an object from the College’s Center for Russian Culture.

Si adelante no vas, atrasarás,” as the saying goes. “He who does not advance goes backward.”

Photos by Maria Stenzel

Illustration by James Yang