Oct. 15, 1998
Vol. 18, No. 2

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    Mellon grant provides first funds to make changes in second languages program

    With a $1.25 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the University's modern language departments may radically change the way second languages are taught in the United States.

    "We are rethinking the core structure for college language programs," said Sander Gilman, Chairman in the Germanic Studies Department and the Henry R. Luce Distinguished Service Professor of the Liberal Arts in Human Biology.

    The proposal for making these changes piqued the interest of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As Harriet Zuckerman, the foundation's senior vice president, said, "We thought the proposal was extremely promising. What's distinctive about the Chicago initiative is the effort to teach foreign languages in a variety of courses."

    Although the number of students who major in second languages is small, the program aims to dramatically increase the number of students who study second languages, said Gilman.

    Gilman, who once taught a required, early-morning German course at a technical college, understands the challenges of changing students' attitudes about learning languages. "We will make learning another language relevant to their lives," he said.

    Zuckerman said, "The objectives of students taking language courses are much more varied now than they were 20 years ago."

    The plan consists of four components: strengthening existing programs, establishing language lounges that can be duplicated at many campus locations, offering discussion groups on various topics and creating a flexible study abroad program.

    By the fall of 1999, one residence hall will have a language lounge where students can socialize and converse in any of the seven languages the U.S. Department of Education deems modern languages. This lounge will be equipped with satellite feed and videotapes of programs from other countries.

    For instance, students might watch soap operas in Spanish or the nightly news in French. The other languages represented are Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese and Russian. Gilman, who successfully established language lounges at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he hopes that by the end of the five-year experiment, all the residence halls on campus will have language lounges.

    Currently, a committee is searching for an associate dean for international studies and languages. The new associate dean, whom they intend to name in November, will coordinate cross-curriculum discussion groups and study abroad programs.

    In the future, students will be able to participate in extracurricular discussion groups conducted in the modern languages. For instance, opera might be discussed in Italian, literature in Russian or business in Japanese. The modern languages committee will rely upon individuals from other departments who have expertise in certain fields and a working knowledge of a second language.

    The final component of the curriculum redesign is the opportunity to study abroad. In the past, some students hesitated to study abroad because of time restrictions. The traditional junior year abroad often meant that a student had to spend a fifth year in college, Gilman said. Curriculum changes will eliminate this hindrance. "There will be no student here who will not have the option of going abroad," Gilman said.

    Throughout their four-year academic careers, students will have the opportunity to attend multiple study abroad programs, he said. For instance, a student who plans to study German will have the following options available.

    During the first year, the student will live in Vienna, study beginning German language courses and fulfill one quarter of Western Civilization course requirements.

    During the second year, the program will offer an internship in Cologne with courses that focus on language studies. Chicago's modern language program will arrange internships that could include working in a bank, an art gallery or other settings that give students the opportunity to use practical language skills.

    During the third year, the student will study in Berlin, where Chicago takes part in a consortium with Johns Hopkins, Yale and other universities.

    During the third and fourth years, students will receive assistance in applying for Fulbright Scholarships, Gilman said.

    "You learn how language is used by using it in a real culture. There are nuances that have to do with culture," Gilman said.

    Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the Modern Language Association of America, also recognizes the need to develop new ways of learning languages. "The formal institutional structures that work for teaching math, history and writing do not work as well for language because you need more time in order to learn the language," she said.

    During the 1950s, educators emphasized the reading and writing of second languages. But over the past 10 to 20 years, educators have realized the need to emphasize the spoken language, she said. "Now we are far more likely to encounter people of other cultures face to face."

    The University's committee has proposed a five-year plan and are currently evaluating the program and putting personnel in place. Next year, the plan will be implemented, and the final results will be reviewed after five years.

    If this pilot program works at Chicago, then it will be exported to other schools, Gilman said. Zuckerman added that Yale and Columbia also have received grants but are going about solving the issues in different ways.

    "The Class of 2004 will be the test," Gilman said. "If one-third of the class of 2004 intensively studies a language other than their own, then we are successful."