The History of World Languages at WKU
A Preface to this History
As WKU prepared to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2006, the Head of Modern Languages at the time, Dr. Linda Pickle, carefully researched and wrote a history of the first 100 years of the department. She deserves credit for the bulk of the text below, which represents her original text with only minimal edits. In 2021, Interim Head Dr. Alex Poole asked me, as the previous department head, to bring the document up to date. It is with immense gratitude to my mentors at WKU, Dr. Tom Baldwin, who hired me in 1997 and guided me in my early years, and to Dr. Linda Pickle, who as language teacher, colleague and academic leader was a role model for me, that I present an updated history of the department.
--Dr. Laura G. McGee, Professor of German, in March 2021
Modern languages were also taught from the beginning. French was the primary offering, with German courses given on demand by a part-time instructor. Ms. Elizabeth Woods joined Dr. Leiper in the newly established Department of Ancient and Modern Languages in 1911. Ms. Woods was also a central language teacher at Western Kentucky College, offering courses in Spanish, German, and French for many years. After a year abroad at Oxford University and the Sorbonne (1919-1920), she returned to Bowling Green to teach until 1938. After her retirement, she was the college’s Landscape Architect for several years. Ms. Woods died in 1967 at the age of 102.
Classical Studies were central language offerings in the first years after the founding of Western Kentucky State Normal School. An Advanced Certificate course of study, leading to a lifetime teaching certificate, required five courses in Latin. Greek was also offered until 1931. F.C. Grise became the principal Latin teacher in 1918 and from that year until 1949 was the head of the language department. He then became dean of Western Kentucky College until his retirement in 1959.
Several energetic women faculty members have made their careers in our department. A legendary instructor was Sibyl Stonecipher, who taught German and Latin at the college from 1929 until 1964. Ms. Stonecipher had leadership roles in the Kentucky Association of University Women, the Kentucky Classical Association, and the League of Women Voters. Another female faculty mainstay of the department during this period was Marjorie Claggett, who taught French for many years. At the university-run teacher Training School, Fannie Holland taught Latin and sometimes French from 1942 to 1970 and then Latin part-time at the university from 1970 to 1973.
In 1924, when the first degree class was graduated from Western, all students had to have completed ten semester hours in one language. Beginning in the same year, French and Latin majors were established. German was officially listed among the department offerings in 1929.
Spanish had also become part of the modern language curriculum in the 1920-21 academic year, with Professor Elizabeth Woods the first instructor. Spanish was listed for the first time among permanent offerings in the 1943-1944 bulletin. In 1951, college the bulletin included both Spanish and German as minors.
From 1950 through 1960, all language majors were recorded as Foreign Language majors, rather than as majors in French or Latin, the two primary language programs. A major had to complete 18 hours in either French or Latin, with an addition 12 hours in each of two minor languages: French, Latin, Spanish, or German. Five elective hours in “foreign language studies” and a course in the teaching of foreign languages completed the 51-hour major. By 1960, the major had been altered to require 24 hours in the principal language and 18 hours in one minor language of study, with 12 hours in a third language. At this time, a student could also use German or Spanish as the principal language of study.
The intensifying Cold War brought other changes. Elementary Russian was offered for the first time at the Community College in spring 1951 and became a regular offering on the main campus later that year. In 1962, the department instituted a four-semester sequence in Russian and in fall 1965 an 18-hour minor. German offerings also expanded in the early 1960’s. It became a departmental major in 1962, and in 1963 the German faculty was expanded to two full-time positions, one of whom was Dr. Jim Wayne Miller, who later became an internationally known translator and creative writer in English.
Non-curricular changes also came along at this time. Along with departments all over the United States and in line with new theories about how people learn languages, the WKU department added a modern technological language lab with 20 listening stations in 1961. This facility was doubled by 1964 into a student “practice” lab, and at the same time, 30 student stations with appropriate electronic equipment were installed as a teaching laboratory. The latter facility was expanded with 10 more stations in 1966. This increase in size was made possible by a physical removal of the Foreign Language Department to the Academic-Athletic building (now Diddle Arena), where it remained until the construction of the Fine Arts Center afforded new office space in 1974. The funding support that this growth in language lab space implies is a clear indication of the importance given foreign language learning from the time Sputnik I was launched in 1957 into the 1970’s.
The classical languages also profited by this emphasis. Elementary Greek, discontinued in 1931, was again taught in 1964. In 1965, a major in Classics was added. The long-standing major in Latin remained the more important classical language program, however.
The interest in language study at this time led the department to offer “sample” modern language courses for one semester hour of credit in fall 1965. Non-traditional language offerings were among them: Chinese, Italian, Arabic, and Romanian, as well as the already-established languages of French, German, Russian, and Spanish.
Student language groups, which had played a lively role at the institution since 1925, continued to be important elements in the Foreign Language Department program during this period. The Spanish Club was founded in 1960 and the German Club in 1962. In 1964, local chapters of national honorary societies were founded: Delta Phi Alpha (German), Pi Delta Phi (French), and Sigma Delta Pi (Spanish). In 1966, Western Kentucky University hosted the national Junior Classical League Convention. At that time, the League was the second largest co-ed youth organization in the United States, with only 4-H being larger.
In 1967, Dr. Carol Paul Brown joined the Western Spanish faculty and in 1968 he became the head of the Foreign Language Department, which was composed of fifteen professors at that time. The high expectations for student achievement in that period were indicated by the 1972 placement policy stating that: “A student having had two years in High School is expected to enroll at the third semester level in the same language.” In the 1974-75 catalog, students with three or more years of high school language study were encouraged to enroll in a 300-level course if their abilities merited it.Study abroad became increasingly important in department programming during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and this trend has continued and grown stronger. Dr. Paul Hatcher was instrumental in establishing a summer study abroad agreement with the University of the Americas in Mexico in 1965, the first such program sponsored by the department. In subsequent years, large numbers of students participated in this program as well as in others in Pueblo, Mexico; Montreal, Canada; Montpellier, France; and Rome, Italy. Dr. Baldwin was instrumental in the founding of the Kentucky Institute of International Studies (KIIS) in 1975, the study abroad consortium that by 2005 had expanded to almost 30 summer programs and four semester programs.
In the late 1990s, again following national trends and under the influence of global events, the study of foreign languages began an upswing that would continue into the early 21st century. The university instituted a one-semester general education requirement for all students in 1998, and in the summer of 2004, this requirement was expanded to “proficiency at the second semester level.” The Spanish program grew tremendously, increasing from approximately 40 majors in 1999 to more than 90 in 2005. German enrollments also experienced an upsurge at the beginning of the new century, due to a large influx into the Bowling Green community of Bosnian immigrants who had spent several years as refugees in German-speaking lands.
Staffing in the modern languages, which had declined in the lean years of the 1980’s and 1990’s, grew markedly in the first years of the 21st century, fueled by a general increase in enrollments at WKU and by the more demanding general education foreign language requirement. By 2005, fourteen full-time faculty members taught on the main and Glasgow campuses, with almost as many part-time instructors also contributing courses.
The department faculty drafted a vision statement in fall 2005 that anticipated further expansion of department staffing and offerings in non-Western languages by 2015 and the intensification of outreach and engagement activities for students. Given the dynamic history of this department and of language study in the United States, this was a worthy and ambitious vision. World languages had been declared a high needs area in the Kentucky public school system, and many school districts were unable to identify and attract qualified teachers. The preparation of students from Kentucky schools entering classes at Western had consequently not been as uniformly strong as is desirable. The State Board of Education considered a proposal to require the attainment of a certain minimum level of proficiency in a world language mandatory for high school graduation in the Commonwealth, with that proficiency to be assessed by means of a national test. This proposal for an outcomes-based rather than seat-time-based requirement gave the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University reason to look forward to working with better prepared, more highly motivated students in the future. With this optimistic perspective in mind, the department worded its mission statement to say in part:
Through coursework, experience abroad, and other cultural encounters, the Modern Languages Department cultivates communicative skills and cultural awareness that prepare students at Western Kentucky University to be more knowledgeable and sensitive citizens of the local, regional, and global communities.
Linda Pickle’s leadership from 1999 to 2006 helped catapult the department into the 21st century. She was the author of several external grants, including a Title VI Grant to internationalize the curriculum in collaboration with other units across campus, a FLES grant to offer after-school language programs for children in the community, and an Improving Educator Quality Grant to provide professional development to high school teachers. The IEQ grant provided training on backwards planning and the development of thematic units of study, and offered teachers study abroad experiences to enhance their intercultural learning and help build proficiency. She directed a first cycle of the IEQ grant, and a second cycle was directed by Laura McGee, who was hired in 1997. Some high school teachers traveled abroad for the first time under this grant. Many of the projects undertaken by faculty under the Title VI and by teachers under the IEQ grant advanced the use of technology in language learning. The department helped strengthen language teaching in the region by hosting a Winter Workshop day of professional development for faculty and teachers in collaboration with the Kentucky World Languages Association. In 2005, shortly before her retirement from WKU and from academia, the Kentucky World Languages Association awarded its Lifetime Achievement Award to Linda Pickle for her accomplishments in research, teaching, service and leadership.
Several transitions in leadership occurred as Carol Wilkerson, a specialist in Spanish and teacher education served as head from 2006 to 2008, and then as Richard Weigel, University Distinguished Professor of History, served one year as interim head. In 2009, Laura McGee was named interim head by longtime Dean David Lee. She served for two years before becoming head in 2011 following a national search. During her time as interim and then head until 2020, a pattern of massive change continued for the department.
From 2009 to 2017, the department expanded both capacity and the variety of languages taught, so that it represented more of the world. One year of Chinese was offered, as was one year of Japanese, both taught by part time faculty.
The department initially expanded capacity by utilizing international TAs and hiring part time faculty. The first Fulbright Language Teaching Assistants (FLTAs) taught at WKU that year – Arabic and Swahili. The department applied for FLTAs in each of the years that followed, sometimes hosting as many as five or six FLTAs per year. This brought a tremendous sense of internationalization and diversification of languages to the department, as FLTAs from countries such as Egypt, Libya, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, China, Taiwan, Kenya, Tanzania, Italy, and France joined the department for one academic year at a time. Soon the department applied for and received Japanese TAs through the ALLEX Program, and Chinese TAs through the Taiwan Interns Program, the Confucius Institute, and through a graduate assistantship. In fall 2010, the department hired a part time instructor of Russian who offered first- and second-year Russian. Soon after, it collaborated with History to update and revive the Minor in Russian and East European Studies. Japanese offerings were expanded from two semesters to four.
With the university in a growth phase around 2010 and with strong support for internationalization from the Dean of Potter College of Arts & Letters David Lee and WKU President Gary Ransdell, the department was able to hire an assistant professor of Chinese in 2011 and an assistant professor of Arabic in 2012. Then-department head Laura McGee charged them with building proficiency-oriented major-minor programs. These went online in early 2014 and saw substantial growth.
Just as Modern Languages faculty have adapted their teaching to incorporate new knowledge about how people learn languages most effectively, the faculty have been equally creative and resourceful in adapting to changing conditions. As of this writing in 2021, the Arabic Program led by Dr. David DiMeo has distinguished itself by receiving a U.S. Department of Education Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program (UISFL) Grant for two two-year grant cycles. This funding enabled the hiring of an additional faculty member and the development of an extensive Arabic curriculum being made available online for use world-wide. This is a substantial contribution to the learning of Arabic globally. Arabic further distinguished itself through participation in the QatarDebate Program. In alternating years, undergraduate and Gatton Academy students participate in international debate competitions hosted in Qatar and held in Arabic. The Chinese Flagship Program at WKU was housed in University College and administered through the Honors College until 2018, when it was merged into Modern Languages. The Chinese Flagship Program at WKU offers intensive language instruction with the goal of producing the next generation of global professionals with professional-level language proficiency in their area of expertise, advanced cultural skills, and experience abroad. Dr. Ke Peng directs both the Chinese Flagship and the Chinese Program. Arabic, Chinese, and Russian all participate in the cutting-edge STEM+languages program offered through the Gatton Academy for Mathematics and Science. The Spanish Program, still the largest in the department, added tracks to the major in 2020. This opportunity for students to focus their interests and count courses outside the department is expected to increase the appeal of Spanish for a variety of career fields. Lastly, Chinese added a new type of credential to the department, a 21-hour certificate that combines language study and a flexible array of electives. As languages were no longer represented in general education after the change in late 2017, faculty have been busy creating courses that provide appealing and meaningful first encounters with the culture(s) of their language for general education. At the time of this writing, the most popular of these is Chinese Calligraphy, which is offered in multiple sections each semester. Several sections of MLNG 200, Literature in Translation, are offered each semester.
As Modern Languages entered a new era, it also moved to a new building. In January of 2019, it left the Fine Arts Center, where it had been housed since 1974, and moved into two suites on the second floor of the Honors College and International Center Building. This building is also home to Global Learning and International Affairs, the Kentucky Institute for International Studies, and the Honors College. The department continues its commitment to its mission of equipping students with language and cultural skills to pursue rewarding careers and have fulfilled lives.
Paul Hatcher, 1959-65
Carol Paul Brown, 1968-89
Luzma Umpierre, 1989-91
Lynwood Montell (Folk Studies), Interim Head, 1991-93
Larry Danielson (Folk Studies), 1993-96
Thomas Baldwin, 1996-99
Linda S. Pickle, 1999-2006
Carol Wilkerson, 2006-2008
Richard Weigel, 2008-2009 (Interim)
Laura McGee, 2009-2020 (2009-2011 Interim)
Alex Poole, 2020-present (Interim)