BRATTLEBORO — Fifty years ago last September, three forward-looking students enrolled in a new program offered by School for International Training (SIT). Having trained volunteers for the U.S. Peace Corps at the former Sandanona training site a few miles from the center of Brattleboro, SIT began to apply its expertise in language and cross-cultural studies as the basis for developing its first master's degree program. SIT's experience teaching diverse languages such as Arabic, Bengali, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu, Portuguese, and Spanish led to the development of a master's degree in Teaching Languages at a time when most institutions were still teaching foreign languages grounded in grammar-translation and literature.
SIT's new program aimed to prepare teachers of Spanish and French — two of the most popular languages taught throughout the United States at that time — based on effective communication and grounded in cross-cultural understanding. One French and two Spanish candidates enrolled in September 1968, when SIT was not yet accredited. These students were attracted to the program's novel design and trusted that accreditation would follow. And, so it did; all three candidates were able to receive an accredited MA in Teaching Languages after completing a program that included a homestay with a French- or Spanish-speaking family and an internship in a public school in the U.S. or Canada.
At the outset, SIT did not yet have a full faculty, but relied on the expertise of four staff members (SIT Founder John A. Wallace, Elise Andre, Alvino E. Fantini, and Thomas Todd) plus language professionals who were considered mavericks in the field, given their development of unusual and innovative approaches. At Wallace's request, Fantini, then director of the Foreign Language Office, recruited 13 external experts to participate in an intensive week-long session to design the new program. The central question was how best to prepare effective language educators in communicative approaches with attention to cultural context to ensure that students emerge with proficiency in a new language and the ability to interact appropriately with members of its culture.
The discussion was exhilarating and productive, as experts like Caleb Gattegno, creator of the Silent Way; John Rassias, who personalized the audio-lingual method; and Earl Stevick of the Foreign Service Institute, engaged with other teaching experts in public schools like Carl Pond, Bill Jassey, Jack Parker, and John Riordan. Excitement was high for a novel program that could implement their new approaches. Some returned during the first year to conduct modular courses, while many of these founding fathers and mothers continued as advisers, often providing weekend seminars that continued for many years. As a result, students had the benefit of exposure to one of the most high-powered groups of professionals in the field.
A year later, a third option was added to the program — English as a Foreign Language. As a new field with few other institutions offering MA degrees in TOEFL, enrollment rapidly rose to more than 20 candidates and then to more than 80 during the 1970s and 1980s. Students could opt for any of the three languages or combine areas depending on their interests.
While the popularity of SIT's program grew, other institutions entered the field and began developing their own programs, especially in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language. However, SIT's program remained attractive, in part because it offered options in three languages, optional certification to teach in public schools, and an endorsement in bilingual-multicultural education. SIT also offered the possibility of taking the program in Japan and later added a low-residency summer program.
Changes have occurred in the language field over recent years. Foreign language enrollment in public schools and colleges began to drop sharply. According to data from the Modern Language Association (MLA), decades of increases ended after 2009 and enrollment fell 9.2 percent between 2013 and 2016 — the second-largest drop since the MLA started tracking such information in 1958. According to the MLA, these findings suggest that the declines were "the beginning of a trend rather than a blip."
Many smaller language programs have been eliminated at private colleges, and many liberal arts programs are also eliminating majors in French, German, and Spanish. These external conditions have had an impact on offerings at SIT, which has kept its TOEFL program and a low-residency option while it seeks to develop new ways to meet the changing market, including new programs conducted abroad as SIT expands its global campus options.
After 50 years, SIT continues to seek ways to prepare individuals for work in global and multi-cultural fields. Given that most students attracted to SIT seek to work in intercultural contexts, whether here or abroad, SIT will continue to have an important role to play in the years ahead.
Beatriz C. Fantini is assistant professor emerita at SIT. She is a graduate of the MAT program and was among its first faculty members. She has worked in various capacities at World Learning for more than 50 years. She lives in Dummerston.