WISLI hosts inaugural Less Commonly Taught Languages Career Fair

For public and private organizations to operate successfully on the global stage, individuals are needed who can communicate across languages. Programs like the Wisconsin Intensive Summer Language Institutes (WISLI) have been helping to cultivate the crucial skills needed for global engagement. In effort to connect speakers of less commonly taught languages (LCTL) with professional development and career opportunities, WISLI hosted the LCTL Career Fair.

The event, held virtually on July 17, drew over 450 attendees including UW–Madison students, students from other universities, and language instructors. In addition, 19 panelists and over 42 exhibitors representing myriad fields took part in the fair to connect with language learners and make them aware of opportunities and needs across various industries.

IFLE director speaks on importance of language learning

Cheryl Gibbs, senior director, International and Foreign Language Education (IFLE), U.S. Department of Education, served as keynote speaker for the fair. The IFLE office administers Title VI (domestic) and Fulbright-Hays (overseas) grant and fellowship programs that strengthen foreign language instruction, area/international studies teaching and research, professional development for educators, and curriculum development at the K-12, graduate, and postsecondary levels.

In addressing participants, Gibbs noted that students taking part in language learning programs supported by IFLE, such as WISLI, find opportunities in both the public and private sectors through employers like the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development, Institute for Peace Studies, Teach for America, Google, Brookings Institute, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, and others.

“The language training takes you to public and private and government sectors that really need individuals who speak the language, and who by learning the language, have a maturity and an understanding of what it means to operate in a global environment,” Gibbs said.

Beyond preparing students for meaningful employment and developing individuals who can play roles in strengthening national security, diplomacy, and economic competitiveness, Gibbs said that learning about languages and programs allow students to effect change in the world.

Chart displaying participation in LCTL Career Fair
The LCTL Career Fair brought in a wide group of language learners and professionals. Click to view a larger image.

“Whether our personal history or the history of the United States or world history, there are triggering events and challenges that provide individuals and societies with the context for pursuing language and language proficiency and the capacity to engage with others to effect change,” Gibbs said. “That’s what language is. In the beginning when you were (first) uttering, as you moved through school, when you were attracted to learning a language—the whole overarching outcome was to effect change and to allow you to engage with others.”

Following Gibbs’ keynote, panel discussions were held on topics such as “Opportunities for Speakers of Less Commonly Taught Languages in the Government,” “Opportunities for Speakers of Less Commonly Taught Languages In the Private Sector,” and “Professional Development Opportunities for Speakers of Less Commonly Taught Languages.”

Participants had the opportunity to ask panelists about desirable skills, how to navigate public sector opportunities, and what panelists saw as the future of LCTLs in the scope of global engagement. In addition, participants received access to resources from exhibitors, which will allow them to further access professional development opportunities or even find a job requiring their unique skillset.

“Less commonly taught” does not equal “less commonly spoken”

A common misunderstanding about less commonly taught languages is that they are less commonly spoken. Often that is not the case.

Languages such as Bengali (130 million speakers), Telugu (81 million), and Tamil (69 million), may not be as familiar to some in the U.S. compared to more commonly taught languages like French (77.2 million), German (76.1 million), and Italian (64.8 million).*

“Although they are ‘less commonly taught,’ these languages may well represent huge numbers of speakers,” said Lesley Bartlett, faculty director for the Institute for Regional and International Studies at UW–Madison. “Many of the less commonly taught languages are critically important to international relations in the 21st century. However, the low level of current enrollments jeopardizes the relatively few existing programs and significantly restricts access to language learning opportunities for the large majority of students in the United States.”

WISLI has made strong strides in increasing the number of speakers for LCTLs. This summer, WISLI has 375 participants, a record number. WISLI staff hope to continue this trend in the future through virtual and in-person offerings, both formats which have shown strong growth for participants.


Every summer, WISLI offers high-quality language courses in less commonly taught languages. WISLI courses are intensive, condensing an entire year of language study in the 8-week summer session that combines classroom learning with a variety of co-curricular activities. WISLI language courses are cost-effective, and, increasingly accessible with in-person and virtual learning options.

Through WISLI, UW–Madison trains undergraduates, graduate students, professionals, and other non-traditional students from across the country in LCTLs such as Arabic, Bengali, Brazilian Portuguese, Burmese, Dari, Filipino, Gujarati, Hindi, Hmong, Indonesian, Javanese, Kazakh, Khmer, Lao, Malayalam, Marathi, Pashto, Persian, Sanskrit, Sinhala, Tajik, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish, Urdu, Uyghur, Uzbek, and Vietnamese. Many of these languages are designated as critical to U.S. security and economic competitiveness.

Learn more about WISLI.

*Numbers based on the most recent data for each language in Ethnologue. Data presented is first-language speakers.