NYU Program Ends the Stress of Tackling a Foreign Language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu May 18 14:00:35 UTC 2006

>>From the ARchives of the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 22, 1996

New NYU Program Ends the Stress of Tackling a Foreign Language
The university uses an informal approach to whet students' appetites for
formal classes later
By Amy Magaro Rubin

New York -- The student lounge in the Waverly Building at New York
University is usually a haven for reading, napping, and whispered
conversations. Late one afternoon, however, the soft hum is broken when a
group gathers and begins to belt out the "Figaro" aria from The Barber of
Seville. "Ah, bravo, Figaro. Bravo, bravissimo," they sing, their heads
moving to Rossini's music. More than one passerby pauses and peers through
the big windows of the corner lounge to find out what is going on. What
they see is 16 students in a circle, some seated in armchairs and sofas,
others cross-legged on the floor, taking a beginning-Italian class.  The
instructor spends 90 minutes using the aria to teach the students some
basic vocabulary and phrases and to instill in them an appreciation for
Italian music and the opera.

The lesson, one of a series of 10, is free of charge but is not given for
academic credit. It's part of an experiment here to encourage students to
learn foreign languages and study abroad. Nationwide, educators agree that
attracting undergraduates to foreign-language study is difficult unless
the courses are a graduation requirement. Students call such classes
time-consuming, difficult, and unnecessary, since English is spoken around
the world. University officials believe that their new program, called
"N.Y.U.  Speaking Freely," will change those attitudes. Unveiled this
semester, it has attracted more than 350 students, most of them freshmen,
to classes in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish,
and Swahili.

The idea is to make learning a language fun rather than intimidating. The
weekly classes, called"sessions," are held in dormitories or student
lounges, and the instructors -- graduate students who already teach
for-credit language courses -- are called"coaches." Attendance records,
homework, tests, and grades are out. Over 10 weeks, the students sing, put
on skits, eat at ethnic restaurants, and watch foreign films to develop
basic conversational skills and to introduce themselves to another
culture."We try to teach them survival skills," says Celines Villalba, a
Spanish coach. In a Korean session, students learn how to shop. They
practice such passages as"Shil lae hap ni da man notebook rul sa luh go ha
nun dae yo.  Myut cheng e ye yo?" ("Excuse me, I'd like to buy a notebook.
What floor is it?") They also learn how to bargain."In Korea, everyone
bargains, and you have to know the cultural rules for bargaining," says
Sung-won Yim, the coach.

For a Japanese session, students meet at Sharaku, a restaurant near the
campus. They order meals in Japanese and practice traditional Japanese
table manners. When their food arrives -- many orders of miso soup and
sushi -- their coach reminds them to say,"Itadakimasu" ("I will receive"),
to thank the cook and those who provided the food. The idea for the
program came from L. Jay Oliva, the university's president, who says his
own fluency in French has been essential in working with his counterparts
at universities in Africa and France. He wanted to develop a way "to give
students a basic conversational understanding of a language, with culture
woven into it." The means to that end also had to be inexpensive,
different enough to attract students, and exciting enough to hold their
interest. Some professors questioned the idea's feasibility."I had my
doubts whether we could sustain it," says Loredana Anderson, a professor
of Italian."But it has a motor of its own now, and I think it's generating
enthusiasm for the languages."

There is no shortage of enthusiasm at a Swahili session, where students
examine illustrations and describe them in a language they didn't know at
all a few weeks earlier. When one student successfully explains a safari
scene, Sonia Rosen, a freshman who signed up"because it sounded
interesting," enthusiastically congratulates him. "It's easy to get
hooked," says Ms. Rosen, an elementary-education major. Indeed, more than
half of the Speaking Freely students have said they are interested in
following up with for-credit courses.

That encourages faculty members, who at first feared that the program
would discourage students from enrolling in regular language courses.
Enrollment in such courses this semester is the same as it was last year,
meaning that, so far, the non-credit students are not depleting the pool
for foreign-language classes. The university does have a foreign-language
requirement, although it varies from school to school. The College of Arts
and Science, from which Speaking Freely has drawn the most students,
requires two years of foreign-language study. But that minimum is waived
for those who demonstrate in a special examination that their proficiency
is that of a student who has completed four N.Y.U. courses in the
language. About 40 per cent of arts-and-science students pass the exam,
but only half of those that pass go on to take a foreign-language course.
Of the 60 per cent who do have to take two years of a foreign language,
few continue their studies after they have satisfied the requirement.

Students say they don't have time for foreign-language courses, most of
which meet at least four days a week. Some of them also fear that they
might do poorly. This is particularly true for those considering Asian
languages, which do not use the Roman alphabet. Take Samuel Buckholtz, a
freshman. He did well enough on the special exam in Latin to be exempted
from the arts-and-science language requirement, as have about 45 per cent
of his fellow Speaking Freely students. As a major in computer science and
economics, though, he figured it would be good for his career to know some
Japanese. But with his double major and a minor in politics, he could find
no room in his class schedule for a language course, and he didn't want to
deal with the stress of additional assignments and exams. Instead, Mr.
Buckholtz signed up for a Japanese session after he learned about Speaking
Freely during freshman orientation this summer."It's fun,"  he says."We're
learning a little Japanese and a little culture, and we're learning it
without pressure, which is a major change from the rest of the day. That's

Because of the experience, Mr. Buckholtz adds, he has started to think
about studying in Japan. This is what university officials want to see
happen."We want N.Y.U.  Speaking Freely to whet students' appetites to go
abroad," says Matthew S.  Santirocco, dean of the College of Arts and
Science. About 1 per cent of the university's 17,000 undergraduates go
overseas on academic programs each year. Dr. Oliva -- who went to France
as a college student -- would like to see every undergraduate go abroad,
although he acknowledges that this may not be a realistic goal. N.Y.U. has
academic programs in Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Israel, Italy,
and Spain. Exchange arrangements allow students to study in many other
countries as well.

For now, university officials hope that Speaking Freely will increase
participation in the programs in France, Italy, and Spain. And they aren't
surprised that Italian is the most popular choice among students. "They
know we have La Pietra," says Dr. Santirocco, referring to N.Y.U.'s
five-villa, 57-acre estate near Florence. Foreign languages are emphasized
in all of the university's study-abroad programs. Some require students to
be fluent in the language of the country in which they will be studying.
Even the less-stringent programs include intensive language courses.
"Language is integral to foreign study," says Dr. Oliva. "Otherwise the
foreign study isn't complete."

He likes to repeat what he once was told by a man from the Netherlands."We
speak English," the man said,"but you'll never really know us very well,
because Dutch reflects our personality." "It's wonderful that English is
spoken worldwide," says Dr. Oliva,"but it's an excuse that prevents us
from really understanding another culture." N.Y.U. officials stress that
Speaking Freely is no substitute for formal language study."It's a
first-contact thing," says Michel Sitruk, a professor of French."Here's a
taste, now come back for more." Vanessa Nornberg wants more. A senior
enrolled in one of the German sessions, she is already making plans to
take a formal course, perhaps through N.Y.U.'s continuing-education
program, after she graduates in December.

Ms. Nornberg, who is majoring in Romance languages and European studies,
is already fluent in French and Spanish and wanted to learn German, but
she had no time this semester for a course. She visited Germany while
studying in France and Spain last year."It was strange to be in a country
where I couldn't speak the language," she says."Now it will be better,
next time I go there." Matthew Johnson, a freshman majoring in European
studies and German, feels the same way about his decision to sign up for
an Italian session. He wants to spend a semester at La Pietra. Speaking
Freely, he says, gives him a head start in Italian. "It's crucial for me
to know some for when I first get there," he says."I'll have a basic
knowledge and be able to build on it in the formal classes."

Mr. Johnson's schedule is full of classes for his double major, so he
enjoys the relaxed nature of the sessions."Just the fact that you're able
to learn the language in an informal atmosphere is nice," he says. With
that, Mr. Johnson joins his classmates, who are collecting their bags and
beginning to leave the Italian session. A few of them are still humming
the infectious tune about Figaro.

Copyright  1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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