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Language immersion important to RCAH education

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) is working hard to help students find their voices and speak their minds through foreign languages.

Now that the doors of the new college are open, the RCAH is focused on providing students with an enriching education coupled with applicable life experience. The college is developing new programs to promote students’ foreign language proficiency and engage them in the cultural aspects associated with different languages.

“What we’re trying to do with the initiative is foster the connections among language, culture and thought because they are really not separate, there are so many interconnections,” said Deidre Dawson, RCAH professor whose expertise is in French literature, language, and culture.

The RCAH gives students freedom when setting up their curriculum. Students work with advisors to choose programs from the required core curriculum and are also encouraged to take credits outside of the college. Dean Stephen Esquith said that the RCAH major is well complimented by the arts and humanities programs, vocational areas of social work and the educational field. Essentially, RCAH students are able to shape their own programs.

To graduate, students must meet a language proficiency requirement. This requirement is not measured in credits completed but rather in the student’s ability to communicate in the language. Students must pass a test to demonstrate a high level of proficiency in their target language. To help students reach this goal, they engage in language immersion activities that provide opportunities to speak a foreign language in a number of settings.

“What you get from a classroom setting is mostly foundation, you don’t learn to really speak a language until you try to speak a language in some sort of immersion activity,” said Dan Reed, a language assessment specialist at MSU's Center for Language Education and Research.

Immersion activities for RCAH include watching and discussing foreign films, language tables and coffee hours – all spoken completely in the target language. The college is working with language mentors to develop new immersion activity opportunities for students, such as an International Film Festival and a “Culture Day” where bilingual community families would speak and socialize with students. Reed and Dawson said that learning a language in the native country is the most effective way to learn. “Study abroad is the ultimate immersion,” Dawson said.

Reed said that students who study abroad have the greatest chance to develop their proficiency. He said MSU has an amazing array of study abroad opportunities that students need to take advantage of.

“There are already study abroad programs in just about any country you could imagine, so one thing we’re doing is getting that information out to the RCAH freshmen class,” Dawson said. “We’re also looking into starting some study abroad programs initiated by the Residential College.”

Civic engagement is another avenue where RCAH students can improve their language skills while making a difference in the community. Civic engagement is more than the notion of community service because students are engaged in various activities immersed in another language to help others while learning from them at the same time. Students in RCAH work in afterschool programs, volunteer with refugees, help in a soup kitchen and engage in other activities. While Reed said that not all students in the college are expected to obtain near-native levels of proficiency, these learning opportunities will make their skills stronger.

“Students get a chance to see how language is actually used not just in the artificial classroom setting but among real people,” Reed said. “No matter how proficient students are with academic language, they benefit from learning the real use of it.”

According to Esquith, language isn’t something that can be learned in total isolation from its context. Visual and performing arts enhance the meaning of language and the culture it derives from.

“Students make sense out of different cultures from music, painting, sculpture and poetry. All students have a workshop requirement where they have to get their hands dirty,” Esquith said. “Print making, theater and dance help students appreciate the depth and texture of all cultures and where the ethical issues bite. Students have to do work in order to experience the issues.”

Esquith said that the RCAH programs provide students with the ethical and moral confidence to reason through problems, determine their own position clearly and understand their own assumptions. The idea of the RCAH is to connect what students learn in the classroom with the real world.

“We’re trying to set up the kind of conditions that would enable people to develop proficiency in useful ways: to go abroad, speak the language and be more productive in the field they’re going into,” Reed said.

The RCAH is in the early stages of their goals but are moving in a direction for a more culturally and linguistically proficient future. The new facilities are impressive from the outside but it is the caliber of education brewing inside the minds of the faculty that is moving the humanities of MSU to higher levels, one language at a time.

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