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A History of Language Instruction at the Naval Academy

by Samuel Limneos on 2020-03-19T13:47:15-04:00 in History, Languages and Cultures | Comments
Professor Arsene Girault

The study of foreign languages at the Naval Academy goes right back to its beginnings. In 1845, the first organization of the academy provided for six professorships including Arsene N. Girault as Professor of French and Spanish Languages. In the original division of studies for the Naval Academy, the program of recitation for the senior class included instruction in French or Spanish for three hours daily, excepting Saturdays when the junior class received one hour of instruction. During the late 1840s, Mathematics Professor William M. Chauvenet assisted Girault in French instruction. In 1850 the academic organization underwent a major reorganization. The Naval School at Annapolis became the United States Naval Academy, and the professorship held by Girault became the “Professor of Modern Languages,” charged with instructing midshipmen in speaking, reading, and writing French and Spanish. In the same year, Edward A. Roget became an Assistant Professor in Spanish under Girault. 

Professor Edward A. Roget

In 1851 the Department of Modern Languages was divided into separate departments of French and Spanish. Roget was promoted to the rank of full professor and assumed leadership of the Department of Spanish, while Girault maintained charge of the Department of French. On October 8, 1853 the Academic Board appointed a committee consisting of Girault and Chauvenet to “report on the expediency of amending the program in regard to the recitations in Spanish and French.” On October 26, 1853, the committee reported that instruction in French should cease at the close of the first session of a midshipman’s second year and further recommended that “the Professor of Spanish to teach the Spanish language through the French [emphasis added] so far as he may find it practicable.” This procedure continued until 1867 and placed great demand on the language instructors. By 1858 Leopold V. Dovilliers had replaced Chauvenet as Assistant Professor of French. While the academy was temporarily berthed at Newport, Rhode Island, during the Civil War, language instruction was given aboard the school ships Constitution and Santee. By 1864, the faculty grew to three assistant professors in French under Girault, and one assistant professor of Spanish under Roget.

Professor Leopold V. Dovilliers

Girault retired in 1866 having written several successful textbooks for French, some frequently reprinted and used at the academy for twenty-one years.  Dovilliers succeeded him and adopted Fasquelle’s French Course, and Reader. He also instituted the practice of conducting all first class midshipman recitations, including recitation of grammar rules, in French.  By the 1867-1868 academic year the language faculty grew to ten language instructors - six in French, four in Spanish. Included on the academic staff for the first time were two naval officers: Lieutenant Commanders Edward P. Lull, and Winfield S. Schley (an 1860 graduate of the academy and later famous for his role in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba) as assistant professors in the Spanish Department. During the 1870-1871 academic year, Commander Edward Y. McCauley became head of the Department of French, and Dovilliers retired the following year.

  Commander Winfield Scott Schley 

During the 1873-1874 academic year, the departments of French and Spanish were reorganized into a single Department of Modern Languages, with Schley as department head. Professor Lucien F. Prud’Homme succeeded Schley in 1876 and was then replaced by by Lieutenant Commander J. Schouler in 1882. 

Schouler was the first in a series of military department heads that would continue until 1969, but the academy long relied on civilian professors who were naturalized US citizens equipped with the language fluency, cultural understanding, and knowledge of the literary history of their birth nations. Two such professors reflect this trend in the department's history: Jean Des Garennes and Arturo Fernandez. Des Garennes received his appointment as Assistant Professor of French at the Naval Academy in 1894 and taught midshipmen in both Italian and French until his retirement in 1922. Born in 1848, he served in the Pontifical Guard in Rome during the late 1860s, where he became proficient in Italian, and earned the Military Cross of Pope Pius IX in 1868. He served in the French Army during the Franco-Prussian War, resigning from military service shortly after the conflict in 1871. Des Garennes moved to Washington, DC, in 1885 and finally settled in Annapolis in 1894. Arturo Fernandez taught French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at the Naval Academy from 1905 to 1939. The son of a Spanish army officer, he was born in 1878 and journeyed to his father's duty station in Cuba at the age of 13. He served as a subaltern in the campaigns of the Spanish Army against Cuban and American forces, for which he received the Cross of Military Merit. While on holiday in 1914, Fernandez rendered assistance at the US Embassy, Paris, caring for Americans stranded in Europe by the sudden outbreak of World War I. 

Professors Arturo Fernandez (left) and Jean Des Garennes (right), 1909


Modern Language Department, 1920s 

Changes in the department's name were frequent with a switch to "Department of Languages" in 1895, reversion to "Department of Modern Languages" in 1899, and back to "Department of Languages" in 1933. In 1940, a new name, "Department of Foreign Languages," was adopted.

These decades saw cycles of expansion and contraction of the department. The greater number of students at the academy during World War I necessitated the expansion of the department’s faculty. During the 1918-1919 academic year the department’s civilian faculty grew to twenty-eight, most with professional and postgraduate degrees. Instruction was still in French and Spanish, divided equally throughout the Brigade, and given only to fourth and third class midshipmen. During the 1920s, the civilian faculty was substantially reduced as a result of the Washington Conference on Naval Disarmament, and by 1930, the department employed sixteen military officers and fourteen civilians. During the same academic year the near century-long monopoly of French and Spanish yielded, and the academy began offering courses in German and Italian.

Foreign Languages Club, from the 1938 Lucky Bag

The 1930s saw an enthusiasm for expanded extracurricular activities at the academy, and on December 1, 1937, a group of forty midshipmen led by Phil A. Beshany established the Foreign Language Club to “stimulate interest in the foreign languages and thus tend towards greater fluency among the midshipmen.” The club, which eventually established distinct language sections, conducted weekly meetings in foreign languages, maintained a reading room well-supplied with foreign periodicals, organized language tables in the various battalions, and played foreign music during dinners. During the 1938-1939 academic year instruction consisting of both recitations and examinations was given to third and fourth class midshipmen. Upon completion of the language course, midshipmen were offered the opportunity to qualify as interpreters in the language studied, and those who successfully passed the examination were certified by the Navy Department in their officer records.

In 1940, Portuguese instruction was added to the curriculum with Russian following in 1942. World War II brought an influx of civilian college language instructors to the academy as reserve officers with many of these specialists transferring to the civilian faculty after the war. During the 1942-1943 academic year, the administration began appointing senior professors as principal academic advisers to officer department heads. Joseph M. Purdie, a longtime member of the department’s faculty, was selected as the first senior professor. By 1948, the department had grown to twenty-nine civilian and eight military faculty.

Professor Alden R. Hefler discussing the        geography of Mexico during a Spanish Class in 1958

The 1959-1960 academic year brought with it another major revision to the academy's academic organization, and the department was placed in the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities. That same year, the first reel-tape audio laboratory was installed in Leahy Hall for use by the department. The laboratory was equipped with listening booths, recorders, and a wide assortment of material including transcriptions based on the grammar of all the languages taught by the department. During the 1960-1961 academic year the electives, voluntary majors, and validation programs were introduced at the academy. Under the new curriculum, basic instruction in a foreign language of their choice was provided to midshipmen in their fourth and third class years. Electives in advanced language, language-specific literature, and civilization courses were provided by the department. Midshipmen could choose to undertake a major program in foreign languages by completing fifteen to eighteen additional semester hours of relevant courses, for a total of thirty-six semester hours in one language.  Additionally, midshipmen already proficient in certain languages could obtain credit for required courses via the validation program and enroll in advanced language courses or replace the vacancy with elective courses. Also that year, Lieutenant Jorge Orizaga-Amezuca from Mexico became first in a long line of officers from foreign navies to serve as language instructors and officer role models through the Naval Academy Foreign Officer Exchange Program. 

LT Jorge Orizaga-Amezuca, Mexican Navy

In 1963, an intensive review of the academic curriculum was conducted by the Naval Academy Curriculum Committee, and the following year, mandatory language study was reduced to a one-year basic course for the fourth class designed to build basic listening and speaking skills. Midshipmen were now required to complete a chosen minor composed of six advanced courses in one of twenty-three fields, including French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Of the Class of 1969, 25.3 percent chose humanities and social science minors. During the 1966-1967 academic year facilities and services were improved. The department was equipped with a tape recording studio, high-speed tape duplication facilities, and three language laboratories capable of accommodating up to seventy midshipmen for practice and oral testing. Tapes for all language lessons in the basic and intermediate courses, along with more than 900 portable recorder-playback units were issued to midshipmen for use in completing homework in Bancroft Hall. 

A Midshipman reaches for magazines in Spanish and Portuguese for parallel reading, 1958.

The following year, the department began affording select midshipmen opportunities to study abroad during the summer on foreign exchange cruises. During the 1968-1969 academic year, the newly christened "Department of Modern Languages" began offering a course on basic Chinese, bringing the total number of languages offered to seven. 

Poster - Movies offered by Foreign Language Club, 1970

Another academic reorganization occurred in 1970 with the implementation of required majors, and the department became the "Department of Are Language Studies" under the Division of US and International Studies. Political science, economics, history, literature, foreign affairs, and general management majors all required eighteen semester hours of language study. Majors in European studies, Far Eastern studies, Latin American studies, and Soviet studies had an overall language requirement of twenty-four semester hours. The latter majors combined political and historical investigation of their respective geographical areas with study of the related language, literature, and culture. The European and Latin American Studies majors also utilized exchange officers from the navies of France, Germany, Italy, Brazil, and Mexico to teach courses. During the 1974-1975 academic year, Japanese was introduced into the Far Eastern Studies major before being discontinued in 1977 along with Italian and Portuguese and the option to minor in a language.

ENS Michael C. Halbig, USNR giving a class in German, 1973

The interdisciplinary European, Far Eastern, and Latin American studies majors were also phased out in 1977. Midshipmen majoring in economics, English, history, or political science were required to take or validate four semesters of a given language and had the option of taking advanced courses. As a result, the department was renamed the "Department of Language Studies." In 1980, the Midshipman Summer Study-Travel Abroad Program was renewed thanks to the generous bequest of select alumni and provided for the expansion of opportunities for midshipmen to study and intern in China, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, and Spain.

CDR Bodin, French Navy giving a class; note the presence of the television used for foreign television broadcasts, 1980s. 

The department installed the first satellite receiving station on the yard in 1983, which brought foreign television broadcasts into the laboratory and classrooms for instruction aids. By the 1990, the academy had installed three satellite dishes enabling the distribution of foreign language television channels into offices and Bancroft Hall through the Educational Resources Center's video network. From 1986 to 1991 faculty of the Language Studies Department utilized satellite television to produce a large inventory of laser videodiscs containing foreign news, interviews, commercials and films for use in interactive computer-video lessons in the Nimitz Library Language Laboratories. 

Language minor programs consisting of twelve credit hours were reintroduced in 1987 as was Japanese instruction in 1990. In 1992, the department was moved to the newly formed Division of Humanities and Social Sciences. During the same year, Chinese was dropped from the curriculum before being reintegrated ten years later. Arabic was added in 2004. These two languages became the first language majors - consisting of ten three-credit language and culture courses - offered at the academy in more than 30 years in 2007. The establishment of the Naval Academy International Program Office in 2009 improved the coordination and assistance with all international engagement, travel, and student and faculty exchanges.  It also developed opportunities for midshipmen to reinforce their capabilities in foreign languages and regional knowledge. Phi Sigma Iota international honor society for foreign languages established a chapter at the Naval Academy that same year. During the 2011-2012 academic year, the department title was changed to the Languages and Cultures Department, which it remains today.



  • United States Naval Academy. 150th Anniversary - History of the Department of Language Studies. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Academy, 1995.
  • Soley, James R. Historical Sketch of the United States Naval Academy. Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1876.
  • United States Naval Academy. Official Register of the Officers and Acting Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy, 1858-1864. Special Collections and Archives Department. Nimitz Library. U. S. Naval Academy.
  • United States Naval Academy Academic Board. Journal of the Academic Board, 1845-1855. Academic Board, Entry 204: Journals of the Academic Board (“Minutes of the Academic Board,” “Academic Journals”), 1845-1942. Special Collections and Archives Department. Nimitz Library. U. S. Naval Academy.
  • United States Naval Academy. The Lucky Bag, 1938. Special Collections and Archives Department. Nimitz Library. U. S. Naval Academy.
  • United States Naval Academy. U.S. Naval Academy Self-Evaluation Study Report, 1967. Folder: Reports, 1966-1970. Box 44. Series: Records of Professor Arthur Stewart Pitt. Entry 201h: Records of the Division of English and History. Special Collections and Archives Department. Nimitz Library. U. S. Naval Academy.

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