October 2, 2003

FALCON Program Flies High

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Falcons are fast, spirited, high-flying birds. FALCON students are not much different. Participants in the Department of Asian Studies’ Full-year Asian Language Concentration become nearly fluent in either Chinese or Japanese in just one year of study.

A program that has been in existence since 1972, FALCON is one of Cornell’s best-kept secrets. Other than one run by the U.S. State Department, the Cornell program is the only full-year Chinese and Japanese immersion program in the country. High school students, Cornell undergraduates, graduate students and many others participate in the program. This year, there are 10 students in the Chinese program and 17 in Japanese.

Three drill classes entirely in the language, one English lecture clarifying points about grammar and culture and up to five hours of language lab work force students to learn their language of choice at a very concentrated level. Five days a week, for nine hours each day, participants learn to read, write, speak and listen to the language. Both Chinese and Japanese students take advantage of the Language Learning Center near Beebe Lake, spending around three hours there every day.

Tom Mason ’99, currently a graduate student at Cornell, believes that FALCON is the best language program in the world. On a leave of absence as its program coordinator, Mason is himself a product of FALCON. He transferred to Cornell after a language program in Japan left him unsatisfied.

“At least half of our [Japanese] students have lived in Japan for more than a year,” Mason said.

He explained that students come to Cornell to get a foundation in the language before returning to Japan for business or travel, unable to get a solid grounding overseas or at many other schools.

Because of its reputation as vigorous and demanding, “FALCON is a self-selecting program,” said Prof. Yufen Mehta, Asian studies, who teaches Chinese FALCON. Students “should take the most credit” for the program’s success, she said.

Prof. Stephanie Hoare Ph.D. ’89, Asian studies, director of Chinese FALCON, added that “not everyone has the energy or the dedication to do it.”

Despite the fact that it is so time-consuming, it is possible for many undergraduates and even graduate students to include a year of FALCON in their schedules. She added that it is practical for those studying economics, anthropology, Asian studies and history. However, “it’s harder for them to work it into a four-year program,” Hoare said. Engineers and students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have also studied with FALCON.

Because it is such an intense program, professors can see improvement in their students week by week.

“The result is very tangible,” said Prof. Naomi Nakada, Asian studies, who teaches in the Japanese program. “I can see them go from zero to virtually fluent.”

For Chinese students, progress is so quick that they are able to spend their spring semester in Beijing at the Inter-University Board Program at Tsinghua University. By this time, they are “able to take advantage of the linguistic environment there,” Hoare said.

This will be the third year in which Chinese students participate in the trip. Students in the Japanese program, however, do not get the opportunity to go abroad through FALCON.

“The grammar just goes on and on and on in Japanese,” explained Prof. Bob Sukle M.A. ’72, Asian studies, director of Japanese FALCON. Sukle, who has been involved in the program since its first year in existence, said that the students do not finish learning basic grammar until the middle of the spring. They are encouraged to study in Japan after they complete the year with FALCON. For all students, exposure to the country and culture is beneficial “only after they have internalized the language,” Sukle said.

“I really believe that we have a treasure here, something that no other university can offer,” Mason said.

That could explain why many FALCON graduates go on to live successfully in China or Japan, and quite a few — including both current program directors — even return to Cornell to keep the bird flying for years to come.

Archived article by Melissa Korn