UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Fall 1999
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Language Study

Bob Arkeilpane





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Department of Modern Languages and Literatures

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The Study of Language
A new emphasis on cultural studies and real-life skills

"As soon as one begins to learn another language-be it Spanish, Latin or Korean-one is immediately confronted by the fact that there are other ways to characterize the world and the things in it and that the ideas and concepts expressed are not always the same in English. This should be an intellectually liberating experience and one of the most important facets of
. . . a university education."
-Robert Van Valin, chair of the UB Department of Linguistics, in a letter calling for the language requirement to be extended to all undergraduates

BY ANN WHITCHER

    What do you remember about your beginning or intermediate language studies at the university level? If a former French student, can you fully conjugate the verb "Ítre"? Can you count to 30 in Spanish? If planning a trip to Munich, can you rent a car, ask for directions (and understand the response) or order a beer in German?
Language     If planning overseas travel, chances are that you will rely on some of the quick language training books, tapes and CD-ROMs now available-or on the likelihood that your hosts will have a better command of English than you do of their language.
    Unless you completed advanced studies in foreign literature, or attained reading knowledge in another language for a graduate degree, it's fairly likely that your college training in French, German, Russian or Spanish will be, at best, a bare underpinning for any ambitions to "get around" in a country whose language you have studied.
    Today's undergraduate student takes on foreign languages in a much-changed terrain from what you knew even 10 years ago. Whereas undergraduates of 30 years ago might have taken intermediate French, German or Italian, today's student might take a so-called "Less Commonly Taught" language, such as American Sign Language or Vietnamese, to satisfy UB's language requirement of intermediate proficiency for all arts and sciences majors and those pursuing undergraduate majors in the medical school. And where Spanish was once just one language choice among many, today it is a booming area of study for undergraduates who see the practical appeal of what has become this country's second language. There is also increasing emphasis on language study as a vehicle for cultural understanding.
    College of Arts and Sciences dean Kerry S. Grant says he was jarred several years ago when, while attending a conference for deans in the humanities, he spotted a session on "The Vanishing Languages: Russian, German and French." While there are still enrollments in those languages, many universities are left with large faculties and decreased student interest in them, he points out. Some universities have responded to declining enrollments by downsizing their language faculty accordingly.
    For the scholarly dean, this is cause for alarm. "One shudders to think what the shape of the university would be today if reductions in faculty based on short-term fluctuations in demand had been the dominant administrative ethos over the past 150 years. We have reason to be concerned about the role of universities in sustaining culture; this is a key concern in the provision of languages at universities. We have an immediate responsibility to serve the interests of the public. We also have a role in sustaining our ties to the past and preserving history."
    Grant contrasts this phenomenon with the growth in Spanish language usage. "We are destined to become a nation which, if not fully bilingual, will be so very broadly, and much further than just in New York, California, Florida and Texas. It is widely recognized that there is great benefit in being able to speak Spanish at all levels of commerce and society. Politicians certainly find it useful to speak Spanish these days! The benefits of bilingualism in Spanish-English cut across all opportunities for the future, in my estimation."
    Despite high demand for elementary courses, says Grant, the situation with Spanish is microcosmic of language issues in universities generally. The popularity of first- and second-year courses in Spanish, he points out, does not translate to equal student interest in advanced language topics or literary studies in that language-long the staples of college and university language programs.
    Furthermore, these developments are tied to Americans' traditional-and stubborn-resistance to mastering any tongue but their own. "It has never caught on in America, broadly and across all classes, that the ability to speak a foreign language is a basic indication of education," says Grant, "whereas in Europe everyone is trained at least in their own language and English, and very likely in another language that will allow them to work effectively in commerce with a closely related country.
    "In many ways, the genuine impetus for Americans to take the matter of learning other languages seriously has been undercut by the advanced state of language education in other nations, which recognize the economic power of America. These countries have developed a base of businesspeople who are perfectly capable of conducting their commerce in English. That's not to say that you can't be much more successful doing business internationally if you speak even a modicum of the language."
By Mara McGinnis

    Born deaf and raised in a hearing family, Lee Dray spent the first 16 years of her life unexposed to the culture and language that now define her identity and career.

    Dray, who is the instructor for UB's new courses in American Sign Language (ASL), hopes to help narrow the gap between cultures of the deaf and the hearing, as well as expose hearing people to the deaf culture of America.

    "I grew up in an oral environment, attended public schools and never knew sign language. I was not introduced to another deaf person until I was 16 years old," explains Dray.

    When she was not accepted by her deaf peers as a teen, Dray realized that there was a distinct deaf culture, separate from the mainstream hearing culture, with its own rules, expectations and means of communication.

    "The reason I got involved teaching ASL is that the crossover into other cultures can be very difficult. I want to make it easier for both cultures to appreciate the other and help both hearing and deaf people better understand each other."

    In fall 1998, UB joined a growing number of American colleges and universities that recognize the value and importance of ASL: Through its World Languages Institute (WLI) in the College of Arts and Sciences, the university will offer two years of ASL courses that can be used to fulfill UB's foreign-language requirement.

    At this writing, enrollment in the first-year, first-semester ASL course for the coming fall semester is at capacity with more than 50 students, and several more are on a waiting list, according to Mark Ashwill, WLI director. "ASL has already demonstrated the potential for phenomenal growth," says Ashwill.

    The culture surrounding deafness, including the basic expectations, values and traditions, is what Dray exposes students to in her ASL courses.

    "Naturally, students are quite nervous when they begin the course and don't really know how to respond," explains Dray, a graduate of Gallaudet University, the world's only university for deaf undergraduate students. She says she encourages students from the beginning of the course to use gestures or finger-spelling, rather than written words, to express themselves.

    "We begin by covering how to approach a deaf person, what to do when you meet a deaf person, and so on," explains Dray. "Students have reacted very positively. Some first come to class thinking ‘O.K., this may be interesting,' but then they really get into it and realize how much there is to learn. It really gives them more respect for the language."

    According to Dray, the greatest challenge in teaching hearing students is that the hearing population is rather uncomfortable with touch and expression, which is essential to learning and communicating in ASL. To facilitate learning, WLI is currently using a version of Blackboard.com for ASL. Among other things, the system allows Dray to converse freely with her students during online classes or virtual office hours.

    "I try to encourage students to use their facial expressions and to get them to be more comfortable using their body. They often think ‘reading' sign language means just looking at the hands and focusing on one small area, but it involves the face, the eyes, the distance between the hands and the body and other body language."


Mara McGinnis is assistant editor with University News Services. She conducted this interview with the help of interpreter Dina Capizzi.

    To meet these challenges, UB and other universities are sharpening the practical ap-peal of many language courses; a particularly popular course at UB, for instance, is Spanish for Health-Care Professionals. Perhaps more important, educators here are emphasizing cultural studies and the acquisition of practical, real-life skills and knowledge rather than a primarily literary approach.
    In a pattern that reflects national trends, enrollment in beginning and intermediate Spanish courses at UB has almost tripled in the past 10 years. In the same period, UB has seen a doubling of enrollment in beginning and intermediate Chinese courses, while German has decreased by about a third and Russian by a dramatic 80 percent; enrollments in similar-level Polish courses in the same period have remained steady, as have French. The university currently offers undergraduate majors in French, German, Italian and Spanish, along with numerous language minors. As interest in some traditional European languages has declined, the university has upgraded faculty resources in Japanese and Korean to meet student demand.
    "Several factors have contributed to the recent interest in Spanish language, culture, and literature," comments Margarita Vargas, chair of UB's Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. "Two of the most salient include the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the large number of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States. These two factors have had an impact in the business world, in popular culture and in the political arena."

    Meanwhile, enrollment in Less Commonly Taught languages, or LCTs, is enjoying a substantial increase, although the numbers are still smaller than for the traditional European languages. American Sign Language, Arabic, Modern Greek, Hindi, Irish Gaelic, Swahili and Vietnamese are especially popular among those UB students who choose the LCT option, according to Mark Ashwill, who directs the university's World Languages Institute (WLI).
    Technology, of course, has played a big part in changing patterns of language study. "The Internet is the ultimate language lab," says Ashwill. "With its huge and growing collection of multimedia resources-archives of native speaker recordings, online foreign language periodicals and reference works, and electronic course-delivery systems-it is a treasure trove of sites with authentic materials, a place where students can practice and hone their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills." The trend, he says, is away from the old-fashioned language labs with their banks of tape recorders, and toward the use of web- and server-based applications that students can access 24 hours a day to augment their classroom studies.
    Language acquisition can translate into business opportunities down the road, says John Thomas, associate dean for international programs in the School of Management. M.B.A. candidates who arrive with a foreign language background are better equipped to take advantage of the school's overseas internships and also to secure entry-level positions with an international division or group within a company after graduation. "You're beginning to see a growing interest among M.B.A. programs in requiring a language. I personally would like to see more kinds of programs with links between language majors and our M.B.A. program."
    In line with the emphasis on language acquisition as a tool for cultural studies, UB is experimenting with Languages Across the Curriculum, or LxC, a new concept in language-related training, that sees language acquisition itself as a relative by-product. Its broader intent is to help students deepen their understanding of the content of a course by reading materials in a language other than English. The World Languages Institute administers the program at UB.
    "UB is the first college or university in the world that I know of to make an LxC opportunity available to every student in the institution," says LxC leader H. Stephen Straight, associate provost, professor of anthropology and linguistics, and director of the LxC program at Binghamton University. The program being piloted at UB is paired with the World Civilization course, a requirement for all undergraduates who enrolled as freshmen. Interested students must demonstrate at least intermediate reading proficiency. They gain an additional credit by working in a second language during outside study sessions facilitated by a language resource specialist.
    "One of the ironies of the language requirement as it's usually implemented at colleges and universities is that it's kind of an item on a checklist," Straight says. "As soon as you've met the language requirement, that's it-you never look at the language again. With LxC, on the other hand, students have a way to make more meaningful-and immediate-use of the foreign languages they have studied."
    Janine Santiago, a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies who is a native of Puerto Rico, serves as a language resource specialist for students wishing to incorporate LxC into their World Civilization coursework. She gathers reading material in Spanish from an array of sources to thoughtfully supplement what students are learning in the main part of the course.
     Jana Trezza, a sophomore from Long Island, took Advanced Placement Spanish in high school and last semester incorporated LxC into her World Civ course, with Santiago as her resource specialist. "I speak Spanish, but I'm not fluent. I wanted to continue practicing, so I thought enrolling in World Civ with the LxC component would be a good thing-learning the curriculum in both Spanish and English."
    Adds biology major Dave Padalino: "I found that the LxC course helped to reinforce my learning and understanding of the Spanish language to a point beyond the textbook translation of 'Juan is running' or something like that. It uses practical Spanish and forced me to understand how certain words were used to express a real emotion or thought."

    Casey Dokoupil, a sophomore psychology major from Liverpool, New York, now doing a year abroad at the University of Kent at Canterbury, agrees. "I think the Languages Across the Curriculum program was quite beneficial, not just in teaching me about world civilizations, but also in keeping me on top of the language and helping to contribute to a 'real-world' point of view on the Spanish language. Because the readings we were assigned were written for Spanish speakers, they helped us achieve a more balanced view of ourselves and our own country. When the U.S. was involved in the readings, 'we' became 'them.' As a result, we were able to better understand how other countries and cultures view us as a people."
    For Kerry Grant-who as a young graduate student in music history attended language school in Cologne, Germany-the most meaningful study abroad involves wrestling with a second language. "My sense is that the attempt to live in another country as an American, struggling with the language, gives you a very beneficial experience of being 'the other,' particularly for white Americans. To be someplace and not fit in, to not be able to communicate terribly well and to be looked at as somewhat deficient, is a very revealing experience that, in an appropriate way, is quite humbling and helpful to good citizenship when you go home."


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