Home » Arts and Science in the WorldSpring 2008

The Spanish and Portuguese Connection

by Mardy Fones No Comment

Say Nashville and language, and some people immediately think of a Southern drawl. But say Vanderbilt and language, and scores of scholars, diplomats and business executives around the world think of Spanish and Portuguese. 

Vanderbilt is one of a handful of U.S. universities offering a comprehensive course of study in Spanish and Portuguese, says Cathy Jrade, Chancellor’s Professor of Spanish and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. That comprehensiveness emphasizes both cultural knowledge and fluency, with the result that the department’s graduates can now be found all over the Spanish-speaking world. In addition, a unique, more than 60-year connection to the Portuguese-speaking country of Brazil has made Vanderbilt one of the top centers in the United States for Brazilian studies. 

“Many of our undergraduates combine Spanish as a double major with other fields—premed, engineering, economics, political science,” Jrade says. The globalization that links North America through business, industry and immigration to its Spanish and Portuguese-speaking neighbors has placed the department at the forefront of learning and resources. 

Undergraduates focus on Spanish and Portuguese language study coupled with exploring the traditions, culture, history and literature of the nations that speak those languages. They are encouraged to study abroad and immerse themselves in the language and culture. Students can opt for one of several tracks in the Spanish and Portuguese program, including majoring exclusively in either language or both. 

That marriage of language and culture makes the program successful, according to Emanuelle Oliveira, assistant professor of Luso-Brazilian literature, who teaches classes on the culture of Brazil. “You can’t understand a culture if you don’t go deeper than just learning the language,” says the native of Rio de Janeiro. “The arts and literature of a country represent its soul.”

Skylar King, BA’05, credits her study-abroad semester in Chile for preparing her in both language and cultural understanding. King parlayed her double major in communications studies and Spanish into a job marketing public service and living abroad programs through an Austin, Texas, nonprofit. “Speaking the language deepens and widens your experience with other cultures,” says King, who recently led an alternative spring break group from Indiana University to Costa Rica. “It enriches you.”

Prominence in Portuguese

Although Vanderbilt’s emphasis on Spanish is not surprising, the university’s strength in the study of Portuguese is more unusual.  According to the Modern Language Association, 52 percent of foreign language students nationwide study Spanish. Less than 1 percent study Portuguese, although that figure represents a 22.4 percent increase since 2002. The gain acknowledges Brazil as the 10th-largest economy in the world; overall, one in three people in Latin America speaks Portuguese, and nearly 250 million people worldwide, including those in Angola, Cape Verde, East Timor, Mozambique, Portugal, and São Tomé and Príncipe.

The College of Arts and Science has three full-time faculty teaching Portuguese, a rarity among U.S. universities. Those scholars, along with a longtime partnership with Brazil, make Vanderbilt one of the top five U.S. institutions for the study of Brazil today. 

The foundation for leadership in Portuguese came under the direction of Chancellor Harvie Branscomb, fresh from a trip to South America. He saw offering Spanish and Portuguese as a way to position Vanderbilt as a national institution. Under his direction and using a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, Vanderbilt founded the Institute for Brazilian Studies in 1947. In the 1950s, interest and expertise in things Brazilian led to the founding of Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American Studies, which eventually became the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies (CLAIS). In the 1960s and ’70s, Vanderbilt professors taught at Brazilian universities. The College of Arts and Science’s landmark graduate program in economic development attracted Brazilian students, who returned to their county to serve in positions of prominence in finance and government. 

The department’s graduates can now be found all over the Spanish-speaking world.

Vanderbilt is also a leading research center for Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula studies, home to the international Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA), and holds an extensive collection of reference materials. “Our Brazilian collection is one of the best in the country,” says Marshall Eakin, professor of history and executive director of BRASA. “We have materials that aren’t available anywhere else, including Latin America.” Those materials draw scholars and researchers from around the globe.

Good to Be No. 1

While the undergraduate program prepares students for a variety of careers, the graduate program focuses on educating academics and scholars. More than 50 students apply for the four to five slots available annually. Graduate students from both the U.S. and abroad, already fluent in Spanish, Portuguese or both, attend Vanderbilt to prepare for academic careers via specializations that are immersed in the rich culture, literature, industry and business of Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula. Competitive and comprehensive, the program was recently ranked as the country’s most productive graduate program in the area of studies by The Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index.

Vanderbilt’s comprehensive approach has led its graduates to teach at top-tier institutions such as Notre Dame, Michigan, Dartmouth and Florida. “As a university, we accrue value through the placement of our graduates,” Jrade says. 

That sense of value runs both ways, according to Juan Vitulli, MA’05, PhD’07. Now an assistant professor of Spanish Golden Age literature at the University of Notre Dame, Vitulli says Vanderbilt nurtured his aptitude for scholarly research and teaching. “The Spanish and Portuguese program offered me a great chance to develop my academic interests. When I entered in 2003, I didn’t know what my future would be. I just came to do my M.A. In less than four years, I completed my doctorate and obtained an excellent job,” Vitulli says. “When I started at Notre Dame, I was well prepared to get the balance between teaching and research.” 


Artwork by Nishan Akgulian.

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