Do you want to learn about the values, ethics, and cultures of other countries, so you can communicate appropriately?
The Department of Romance Languages and Literatures (RLL) prepares students of French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish with more than basic reading, writing and speaking skills. Our courses also feature the histories, politics, cultures, customs, and literatures of countries that speak Romance languages.
Whether you are interested in mastering a language, becoming familiar with important literary figures, or studying contemporary global issues, the Romance languages department has a wealth of options to offer you.
The study of a Romance language opens doors around the world. It expands the outlook and interests of the educated citizen, and cultivates a spirit of tolerance and understanding.
We invite you to browse this general information page and the entire Department of Romance Languages & Literatures (RLL) site to learn how the University of Michigan Ann Arbor is providing a world of opportunities to students of French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.
History of RLL
The teaching of Romance languages is almost as old as the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor itself. The first course in French was offered in spring 1847. Only ten years previously, the Literary Department, later to be named the Department of Literature, Science, and the Arts, had become the first established department at the University. In 1846, Jean Louis Fasquelle was appointed professor of modern languages in the newly created Department of Modern Languages. At the time of his appointment, university course offerings in modern languages were sporadic throughout the country and the appointment of a professorship within the discipline was considered progressive.
Spanish and Italian made its appearance in course catalogs in spring 1849 however they would be dropped from course catalogs by the fall and would not be offered again for twenty years. Although no official reason was given, the curriculum change may have been due to the poor performance of students. Two-thirds of the students enrolled in the early Italian course failed the final examination, while students enrolled in Spanish were later found to be deficient in the language. French and German would be the only two modern languages offered until 1868, when Italian and Spanish were reintroduced as course offerings.
French, Spanish, and Italian finally separated from German in 1887 to form the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures (RLL) and the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. However, separate special courses in French and German for engineering students were still taught by a professor of modern languages within the Department of Engineering. Not until 1928 did all language instruction return to its respective department within the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
That same year demand and interest in language instruction increased and RLL moved to the Romance Languages Building, previously known as the Museum Building built in 1879. Here RLL would remain until 1959. In the meanwhile, the U.S. would take part in two world wars, which affected the teaching of modern languages at the University.
During World War I, a number of faculty members were on leave due to military service. While demand in French peaked just at the end of the war, demand for German dramatically declined. During World War II, the University temporarily returned to a three-term system attempting to accelerate students through their academic programs before they entered military service. Special intensive language courses and courses taught outside Ann Arbor were created. Still, by fall 1942, enrollment was down 17%.
Understandably course offerings would not expand again until after the war and enrollment numbers recovered. Hayward Keniston had become RLL department chair in 1940. French was by far the most popular of the Romance languages taught, even boasting a very active French club, Le Cercle français, that hosted an annual series of talks that welcomed distinguished guest speakers. They also put on an annual theater production and had their own dormitory residence for students, La Maison Française. Though La Maison no longer exists, the house itself does, located at 1027 East University.
Portuguese was introduced into the RLL curriculum in 1946. The first courses in Romance linguistics were taught in 1949. By 1958, RLL had outgrown its space in the Romance Languages Building and they moved into the Frieze Building, once located on East Washington Street. Planning for the Modern Languages Building (MLB) was approved in 1965, but construction did not begin until 1969. Notably, although French continued to be the most popular concentration in RLL, Spanish began to experience phenomenal growth.
The 1960’s saw an explosion of interest in Spanish not only at the University, but in the U.S. in general. As a result course offerings expanded at many colleges and Spanish study was developed in high school language programs. Plays in Spanish were performed annually for the University community and Ann Arbor community at large. Still, French continued to have the highest numbers of concentrators in RLL.
In 1967 the academic journal Michigan Romance Studies, which focused on various themes and topics within Romance literatures and Romance linguistics was created. The MLB was completed in fall 1971 and RLL moved into its current location. Professor Frank Casa became RLL department chair in 1973.
By 1981, RLL had 69 concentrators/majors. By 1989, Spanish alone had 69 concentrators and by the end of the 1990s, the total number of concentrators/majors in RLL had risen over 115%.
Today, RLL teaches over 3,000 students each fall and accepts some of the top graduate student candidates into our PhD program each year. The department offers around 160 sections of elementary Spanish and almost 70 sections of elementary French. Italian continues to offer interesting courses with a range of themes, such as opera, literature, and cinema, while Portuguese and courses in Catalan reflect RLL’s interest in regional languages and cultures.