May 25, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 17

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    Center to provide ‘public square’ for discussion of languages

    By Jennifer Carnig
    News Office

    In the coming months, the University will open a center for foreign language instruction and research on par with the distinguished reputation of the various language, literature and civilization programs in the Division of the Humanities and the College.

    Long considered one of the top institutions to study foreign languages—around 50 languages are taught at Chicago every year from a roster of more than 70 offered—the University is known nationally as a center for language study. From Targum to Telugu and Swahili to Syriac, few institutions offer a program with the breadth and depth that the University offers.

    But students and faculty have noted that language classes are scattered across campus and that many classrooms do not allow for the use of internet and video technology that has become so important in foreign language instruction. However, with the help of a $1.7 million capital renovation grant from the Office of the Provost, the facilities soon will match the curriculum.

    The Division of the Humanities and the College are enacting a plan that will transform the second floor of Cobb Lecture Hall into the new Center for the Study of Languages. Renovations are set to begin this summer, with the center opening in the fall or winter quarter.

    “This is an exciting and important project for language study here,” said David Thompson, Associate Dean of Planning and Programs in the Humanities. “The language center is going to allow instructors and faculty to bring a new level of creativity and innovation to the study of foreign languages.”

    In response to ever-increasing enrollments in the University’s language courses—doubled enrollment in Arabic and double-digit growth in Chinese, Japanese, Russian and French—and to the work of a 2004 faculty committee report on the state of language teaching and learning, Danielle Allen, Dean of the Division of the Humanities, and John Boyer, Dean of the College, submitted a joint proposal to merge the current Language Laboratories & Archives in the basement of the Social Sciences Research Building with the Language Faculty Resource Center on the second floor of Cobb Hall.

    Steven Clancy, Senior Lecturer in Russian and Slavic and the Academic Director of the new center, said creating the Center for the Study of Languages has a fourfold goal: to provide modern, size-appropriate classroom facilities and multimedia resources in support of language teaching and learning for students, faculty and instructors; to provide a state-of-the-art research and development center with appropriate staffing and equipment for the development of teaching materials and in support of research in second-language acquisition, language pedagogy and linguistics; to provide professional development in language pedagogy and the use of technology in language instruction; and to provide for the daily business center and office needs of language faculty, lecturers and graduate student instructors.

    Designed by RADA Architects of Chicago, the new center will create more classrooms and teaching spaces on the second floor of Cobb and meet the need for both smaller and larger classroom sizes, Clancy said. Two classrooms will be converted into a multipurpose room that will form one, two or three spaces with configurable walls, perfect for lectures or film viewings as well as the smaller, more personal classrooms necessary for language study.

    It also allows easier integration of technology into language study. The center will be equipped with several “pods,” an element of the design that Clancy calls “an innovative and exciting portion of the entire plan.” These six-person, soundproof rooms will resemble a restaurant booth and provide space for small-group conversations. Each will come equipped with a flat-screen television that could be used to watch foreign language news or entertainment programs or used as a screen for a laptop computer.

    The center will consolidate and enhance support for language teaching and learning by developing a creativity nucleus for instructors and students, Clancy said.

    “There are a lot of interesting projects in language teaching going on but there’s not currently a venue that allows people to discuss these projects or to see what everyone else is doing,” Clancy said. “The center will in essence create a public square for the teaching and discussion of languages.”

    Stephanie Latkovski, Associate Dean of International and Secondary Language Education in the College, points to innovations in foreign language instruction such as “Kanji Alive” as examples of what will be more common once language instructors from all areas of study are working together in the same space.

    A Web-based program, Kanji Alive allows students to watch Japanese characters being drawn stroke by stroke, hear it spoken by a native speaker and see it spelled phonetically using other characters. Created by Harumi Lory, Senior Lecturer in East Asian Languages & Civilizations, and Arno Bosse, the Director of Technology in the Humanities, Kanji Alive is a model of how technological innovation helps students learn languages better and quicker, Latkovski said.

    “Our students are advancing to higher levels of Japanese sooner than they were five or six years ago, so it’s important that we create an environment that fosters ideas for more programs like this,” Latkovski said. “That comes out of language teachers being near each other—sitting around where their counterparts are, seeing different ideas in action and getting ideas for new ways to teach. What the Center for the Study of Languages will do is create a space where that collaboration happens more frequently.”

    Those same conversations can take place more organically between students as well, said Nadine Di Vito, Senior Lecturer in French and the Language Coordinator for the Department of Romance Languages & Literatures.

    “Having everyone in a centralized location will promote a dynamic for language learning that is present now but more diffuse because people are scattered across all corners of the University,” she said. “Exposure to how other languages are perceived and taught can open up your view of your own language, and seeing other cultures in action can truly expand a student’s worldview.”