Some students love to learn foreign languages. For them, languages and studying other cultures are fun.
Matthew Croco of Iowa City, now a student in the College of Dentistry, enjoyed learning German in high school so much that he took two years more as an undergraduate, even though his high school study had fulfilled the requirements.
For many others, however, Iowas foreign language requirement is the academic axe hanging over their course schedule. They ask their advisers, "Why do I need to learn a language? Ill never use it again."
Sometimes parents, remembering hours of drill and struggles with verb forms in their own college experience, agree with their students. They say, "Wouldnt it be smarter to use those hours for more courses in the major?"
Not so, says L. Kathy Heilenman, associate professor of French. "Fulfilling the language requirement is just one part of becoming a world citizen," she says. "Walking away from the University with an understanding of a language puts students at an advantage in a global world."
That global world includes growing numbers of employers. Businesses large and small are increasingly finding markets in other countries. Knowledge of a language and the customs of a culture can move a job prospect up in the rankings.
For example, the number of Americans who can speak the major modern languages of AsiaChinese, Japanese, and Hindiis still small, so there are many career opportunities for individuals trained in them.
French is an official language in 33 countries around the world and is the only language other than English spoken on five continents, so its useful in travel and business dealings around the world.
With 94 million native speakers of German in Europe, study of German is crucial to students interested in European business, government, and literature. In Iowas German program students learn the language, literature, and culture of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
Students of Spanish, the most popular language at Iowa, find that their skills are useful not only if they travel to Central America or South America for business or pleasure, but also in communicating with increasing numbers of Spanish-speaking people in the United States.
Julia DiGangi, a senior from Orland Park, IL, spent the spring and fall of 1998 in Spain and Argentina, respectively, working for a newspaper and attending classes. She was able to pursue her journalistic interests, improve her language skills, and learn two cultures far different from her own Midwestern background.
"I believe Ive built an impressive and comprehensive résumé," DiGangi says.
Students who dont study abroad may not realize how much they have learned in language classes. Heilenman asks her fourth-semester students to prepare an extensive travel proposal in which they describe, plan, and prepare a budget for a trip to a French-speaking region. The students must use the Internet and other real-life interactive resources to do their planning, and the final project must be written entirely in French.
"Projects like these force the hesitant student to realize that they at least have the ability to cope with the experience of interacting in a second language," she says.
How Languages Are Taught
New methods of teaching second languages and new learning technologies seek to help students encounter world languages in a way that gives them practical experience that they can use later in life.
That pleases Janet Croco, a laboratory supervisor at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and Matthew Crocos mother. She had taken four years of German in high school and two more years at the University of Wyoming, but when she went to Germany after graduating, she found that she still couldnt understand the language.
"I couldnt understand what the native Germans were saying to me during most of the trip," she says. "It made me so mad. We used to have to sit in class in college and have conversations with each other in German. Obviously we werent learning dialects."
Ironically, she raised her family in the eastern Iowa community of Amana and when Michael attended Amana/Clear Creek High School, the only language taught was German.
"I hoped that hed learn practical uses of the language and have fun with it," she says, "and he did."
At Iowa, most students must complete two full years of study of a single foreign language, either in high school or at the University. Many students try to fulfill the language requirement in high school because they believe the college courses will be harder.
Julie Schmidt, who graduated in May, says, "I had to make up a year of foreign language at Iowa. It seemed more difficult than in high school. Some of the people in my class said that they were working harder in Spanish than they were in classes for their major."
While that may seem to be true for some students, Heilenman points out that foreign language classes are usually four to five semester hours, almost double the usual number of hours for a class in a students major.
Students may perceive languages as difficult, too, because they require sustained effort across the semester and last-minute cramming isnt an option, she says. Students who feel they are getting behind should come to see their instructor for help immediately, she adds, while it is easier to catch up to the rest of the class.
New Technology Helps Students
The Language Media Center in Phillips Hall is a technology lab as well as a clearinghouse for teaching and learning resources. Students can use tapes, films, CDs, and computer programs to help them learn outside of the classroom.
Students in Russian can play a CD that shows them Russian art, Russian cities, and historical scenes. Music of Russia plays in the background, and examples of priceless Russian art works are shown. As they work through the CD, they hear Russian words and phrases pronounced correctly by the narrators.
The Language Media Center also has programs that introduce students to sign language by showing the signing as phrases are read.
Games in other languages introduce grammar, syntax, and vocabulary as part of having fun. Watching movies or videos made in other countries can help, too.
"When liberal arts students encounter a second language in a University classroom, they should expect to obtain a basic idea of how that language is woven into the cultural fabric of its native countries," Heilenman says. "Students also are encouraged to seek out experience with other languages and different cultures."
They can do that without leaving the University. The International Crossroads Community is a living/learning community in Hillcrest Residence Hall for students interested in foreign cultures, languages, and international issues. It is diverse, it is coed, and it accommodates students of different language abilities, international interests, ages, and experiences. Residents may participate in cultural festivals, language dinners, and programs where they learn about the intricacies of living in a diverse world. It is not necessary to be fluent in a foreign language nor to be a language major to live in the community.
"If we integrate our goals for teaching and learning a world language with the essence of experiencing it, students hopefully will see that languages are not just spoken, they are lived," Heilenman says.
Wendy Voigt and Anne Tanner