Language center helps students prepare for 21st century careers
October 16, 2012
By: Tamara Chapman

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At the University of Denver's Center for World Languages and Cultures, linguistically adventurous students can brush up on their Hindi, chat in Swahili or learn how to ask directions in Korean. They can also revive their lapsed French, add Japanese to their skill set or explore the mysteries of Arabic.

Since opening in fall 2010, the center has served as an essential resource for members of the University community embarking on international research trips or study abroad opportunities. With a host of instructional options that accommodate schedules and learning styles, the center aims to help students master tricky grammar or converse with ease in almost any language.

"The way I see our mission is to help prepare all University of Denver students for 21st century careers," says Director Kathy Mahnke, noting that today's students, if they are to thrive in the global village, "have to have at least some facility with other languages and cultures."

To that end, the center's offerings include everything from courses in less commonly taught languages, such as Tibetan or Bosnian, to individual tutoring. Tutoring can supplement the instruction offered by the University's Department of Languages and Literatures or it can assist independent learners hoping to refresh skills.

One of the most popular programs, Directed Independent Language Study (DILS), allows for self-paced but structured work in several languages not offered elsewhere at the University. This year, for example, students can learn Portuguese, Swahili and Korean. In coming years, Mahnke hopes to add non-credit DILS instruction in Farsi, Vietnamese, Malay—maybe even Tagalog, one of two official languages of the Philippines.

"This is a way we can teach languages that have such small demand that we can't offer a full class," she says of the DILS program. It's also a way to offer instruction in languages important to students preparing for assignments with, say, the Peace Corps, national security agencies or businesses venturing into emerging markets.

When the center develops a DILS program, it first commissions a syllabus from someone who has taught the language. It then enlists a native speaker from the campus or community to serve as a language partner. Partners meet one-on-one with students and host weekly conversation sessions for the group. They also arrange other opportunities for students to use the language. This year, students studying Swahili will work with refugees who speak the language, affording an additional opportunity to listen and chat.

"We're fortunate to be in Denver," Mahnke says, "because Denver is a large city, and it is home to native speakers of many different languages."

Under DILS, testing and assessment are assigned to an outside examiner. A professor from the University of Colorado at Boulder handles testing for Korean, while a professor at Indiana University oversees testing of students learning Swahili. Twice a term, she conducts oral and written assessments via Skype.

Jack Mao, a senior majoring in math and philosophy, takes full advantage of the center's many opportunities to acquire and share language skills. A native of Chongqing, China, he tutors students trying to master his native tongue. But he also studies Swahili and Arabic, in part because he's passionate about languages. Japanese is, perhaps, his favorite.

"It's just so expressive about human feelings," he explains, adding that it has 12 words just for smile.

He first studied Japanese, along with Russian, at the knees of a much-respected expert. "My grandfather was a linguist," Mao says. "He was just amazing."

Today, studying Swahili seems the perfect complement to a life spent conjugating verbs and building vocabulary.

"That was the missing piece in my puzzle," he says of the lingua franca of Africa. "I like its sound; I like its regularity."

Swahili also supports Mao's ambitious career goals. He's hoping to pursue graduate studies in linguistics and work for a nongovernmental organization. To do that, he needs to have several languages at the ready.

For Sarah Gates, a graduate student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, the study of Swahili is essential for her job prospects. She hopes to pursue a career in international development, particularly in post-conflict areas.

"When I was looking at graduate schools, I knew I wanted the opportunity to study Swahili," she explains, noting that the center's programs helped her choose the University of Denver over its competitors.

What's more, the self-paced DILS program complements Gates' busy schedule at Korbel, allowing her to sandwich language study between her master's-level courses. In addition, the emphasis on conversation has complemented her needs.

"I find that the most difficult part is comprehension, so focusing so much on conversation has been really helpful," Gates says. "I've not learned a language like that before, where you're not getting all the grammar front-loaded."

The emphasis on conversation also helped her make the most of a summer internship in Kenya, where she worked with children to help them develop nonviolent communication skills. Their English was limited, so Gates had little choice but to enlist her Swahili. When she encountered a problem, she could consult, via email, with her language partner back in Denver.

The effort, Gates says, helped her break down barriers, not just with the children but also with adults. "People would say things to me like, 'It's so rare that someone from the West has learned our language.'"

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