Languages are deeply valued in Uruguay, where multiple tongues beyond the native Spanish are the norm.
“Uruguay is a country of immigrants,” Aldo Rodriguez, a Ph.D. degree candidate in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations (LEPF), says of his homeland.
“We have more than 120,000 Italian citizens living in Uruguay. We have British people. We have Spanish people,” Rodriguez adds. “We have German, Swiss and Portuguese cities settled by immigrants from those countries.”
People living near the country’s border with Brazil are generally also fluent in Portuguese, which is considered a regional language.
And everyone is expected to know English, which the country regards an international language. Students begin learning English in fourth-grade.
The man in charge of advancing the government’s language ambitions is none other than Aldo Rodriguez, the recently appointed national director of Second Language Policy for the Uruguay National Board of Education.
“By 2030, we want a multilingual country,” he says. “For more than 40 years, our secondary school students have learned French, Italian and English. Authorities believe in the neurological benefits of learning multiple languages.”
Schools in this country should share that ambition, he adds.
“I think U.S. schools will benefit by adopting these types of policies, first and foremost for the multicultural heritage the country has,” Rodriguez says. “It’s outstanding how diverse and culturally rich the United States is. Learning multiple languages will make people understand more about other cultures and people. When you learn a language, you learn its culture.”
Rodriguez, who is living and working in Uruguay while he completes his NIU dissertation, is responsible for crafting policy for all levels of education from first-grade through college.
His professional background fuels his passion for the job. He earned a bachelor’s degree in teaching English as a Second Language, a career he began in 1998. He’s also mentored dozens of teachers, designed educational materials, delivered workshops and seminars, and served as the director of an institute for second languages.
Teaching also drives his educational psychology dissertation, which focuses on persistence in adult secondary school contexts.
“I started working at the adult schools. The population of this school is very unique since 100 percent of the students went through a negative experience with education, and they had to drop out of traditional education,” he says.
“Dropping out is something really common in this context. Sometimes you start with a class of 50 students, and only six or seven finish the school year,” he adds. “My questions were, ‘Who is successful? Who finished school? Why?’ ”
Coming to NIU in 2010 on a Fulbright grant to pursue his master’s in Adult and Higher Education opened many doors.
“When I read the profiles of the professors I was going to have, and the expertise they had in adult education, I just loved it,” Rodriguez says. “I had Dr. Jorge Jeria as my first mentor, and I think I couldn’t have made it to the end of the master’s course without his support.”
Staying at NIU for his doctorate’s brought the mentorship of Stephen Tonks, for whom Rodriguez became a three-year research assistant. Before returning home in 2015, he also worked as a teaching assistant and participated in a search committee.
“My experience at the LEPF department was one of the best in my life,” he says. “All the people who work there are just great, and they made me feel at home.”