November 27, 2012

Critical Languages at Cornell Expand Through $1.2 Million Grant

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The expansion of a partnership between Cornell, Columbia and Yale will allow students to learn Khmer and other “critical,” or less commonly taught, languages through video conference classes. Some language instructors, however, said they have doubts that the courses will be able to replace traditional programs Cornell eliminated through budget cuts.

Under the existing partnership, instructors from the three universities teach nine critical languages to students through video conferences. With a newly-awarded $1.2-million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, starting Fall 2013 the universities may possibly teach Khmer, Sinhala, Polish and Vietnamese, according to Richard Feldman ’69, director of the Cornell Language Resource Center.

In addition to increasing the number of less commonly taught languages that students are able to study, the Mellon grant may help bolster Cornell’s 11 critical language programs, which were decimated by federal budget cuts in 2011. With the languages in a financially precarious state, the Mellon grant “has the potential to ease a little bit of the pressure on the University and the [arts] college to take over those courses,” Feldman said.

But the video conferencing courses, despite their use of high-quality video and audio equipment, do not replace the value of the traditional, on-campus language courses that Cornell formerly offered, several instructors said.

Only five Cornell students are learning Dutch, Greek and Turkish — languages that suffered University budget cuts — through video conferencing this year, according to Feldman.

“As you can see from the numbers, it’s not the same to thing to have a full program with a live teacher on a campus as to get [language instruction] from video conference,” Feldman said.

The low enrollment numbers for distance learning courses may partially stem from “students not really knowing what they’re getting into and … being a bit leery of ,” Feldman said.

While acknowledging that video conferencing courses, like their conventional counterparts, are taught in the classroom, Feldman said that the University needs instructors on campus to help promote foreign language study.

“Having a teacher on campus to hold language tables, to do promotional events, to meet with students and get them interested and explain to them why they might want to study this language … that builds a program in a way that a video from a remote site doesn’t,” he said. “You can see that in the way that there was so much more support for Dutch when the teacher was here — now, we have two students taking it when it’s a remote course.”

Jolanda Pandin, a lecturer of the Indonesian language, said that video conferencing can offer students the opportunity to learn a language when conventional options are not available. Still, “as of now, we can’t say that the video conferencing technology provides learning benefits equal to those that students in a conventional language environment receive,” she said.

The conventional classroom format offers “immediate, direct and personal responses from instructors, which are crucial to language learning [and] aren’t yet matched by current video conferencing technology,” she said.

Although critical languages often enroll fewer students than languages such as Mandarin, Spanish or French, Prof. Tamara Loos, director of the Southeast Asia program, said that it is essential that the University support them. Critical languages are of interest to not only budding linguists at the University, but also to United States foreign policy, she said.

“If you have a lot of undergraduates who want to take the language, then Cornell benefits from offering that language. That makes sense. But if you think about it beyond Cornell, if you think about it in terms of producing experts in the U.S. who understand foreign languages, then it very quickly reaches a higher level of significance,” Loos said.

Studying languages also helps widen students’ perspectives of their heritage and that of the country of the language they are learning, Pandin said.

“Mastering a language which is not one’s own gives one chances to learn about others and hopefully to overcome one’s ignorance about them, especially about those who are marginal to our knowledge,” she said.”

With President David Skorton hoping to enroll more students in study abroad programs, it is more crucial than ever for the University to keep its critical language programs alive, Feldman said.

“Generally, as a university that proclaims itself as the land-grant institution to the world, students need to be able to speak to that world in their own languages,” he said. “President Skorton has said that 50 percent of students should have a meaningful international experience by the time they graduate, and I just wonder if you can have a meaningful international experience in a country where you don’t speak the language, where you rely on their translators … Is that a meaningful experience?”

Original Author: Akane Otani