Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | May 4, 2021

A Brief History of the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Salem State University

By Elizabeth Blood

The teaching of foreign languages has been a part of the curriculum at Salem State since the opening of the Salem Normal School in 1854, when Latin and French were being offered as electives. The offering of foreign language courses at a teacher preparation school was considered controversial at that time, as these courses were seen to be overlapping with the college and university curricula. Despite opposition from outside parties, the administration and faculty defended the teaching of language courses as an integral part of their educational offerings. As a result, the teaching of foreign languages continued uninterrupted from the School’s beginnings until the present day.

Alpheus Crosby, second principal of the Salem Normal School, who served from 1857 to 1865, divided the School into departments to foster greater faculty expertise, creating five distinct divisions. The division designed to prepare teachers for upper secondary education included Ancient and Modern Languages, specifically Latin, Greek and French. In 1858, Crosby hired Ellen Dodge to teach German, English literature, mathematics and philosophy, adding yet another language to the School’s offerings. In 1860, Latin and French were listed as entrance requirements to the advanced program at the school.

Florence May Snell was hired in 1896 to teach Latin and English literature. She was the first woman teacher at Salem Normal School to hold a college degree. During this period, several graduates of the School went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees. Irene Morse, who graduated in the 59th class, left Salem to study medicine in Europe and became the first woman doctor from New England to be sent into a combat zone by the Red Cross Medicine Corps during WWI. Later, expanding on her experiences abroad and the foreign language preparation she received at Salem Normal School, Morse became professor of Modern Languages at the University of Wyoming.

Back in Salem, the foreign language programs continued to develop during the first half of the 20th century, maintaining a focus on ancient (Latin and Greek) and modern languages (French and German). The Department of Foreign Languages was established in the 1960’s, with a focus on modern languages and literatures. By the mid-1960’s, the Department had begun offering Spanish, along with the traditional courses in French and German.

The decade of the 1960’s witnessed the largest expansion of the Foreign Language faculty. Starting in 1960 with one full-time faculty member, the Department grew exponentially to include 11 full-time professors by the year 1970. The vanguard group of faculty hired in the 1960’s expanded course offerings through the 1970’s and 1980’s, providing Salem State students with a strong foundation of coursework in European languages and literatures.

The new wave of Foreign Language faculty, hired during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, built upon the strong foundation of their predecessors and expanded the Department’s offerings to embrace a global perspective. No longer limited to the traditional European context, the department’s professors started to teach Hispanic and Francophone cultures and literatures from North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, in addition to Europe.

Enrollments in Spanish courses increased steadily during the last three decades of the 20th century, responding to national trends. In 2000, the Department inaugurated a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish and within a year graduated its first cohort of Spanish majors. In 2003, the Master of Arts in Teaching Spanish program was approved by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, reviving the goal of teacher preparation in response to the needs of the North Shore community. In the first decades of the 21st century, programs were added in Italian, Arabic and Chinese.

In 2013, recognizing that the languages taught at Salem State are not “foreign” languages to many Americans who have come to the U.S. as immigrants or who have been raised in bilingual households, the department changed its name to the Department of World Languages and Cultures, and launched a BA degree in World Languages and Cultures with concentrations in Spanish, French and Italian.

The study of languages has been integral to the development of the well-rounded liberal arts program that Salem State University has offered its students for the past 167 years. Throughout its history, the language department has expanded and adapted to the needs of the students and the community it serves, connecting our campus to the larger global community through the study of languages and cultures.


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