Language program gives way for education on lesser known languages

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Ana Beltran | The Daily Wildcat The Critical language Program is offered in the East Asian Studies department.

The Critical Languages Program is designed to allow students to take courses in a language not commonly taught. Korean was a popular language in the program before courses started being offered through a more official program in the East Asian Studies (EAS) department.

The mission statement of the CLP is to “promote and teach less commonly taught languages (LCTLs)” by offering routes within the university to engage with these languages. 

Similar programs are active around the country to offer languages which may lack large attendance rates but are still demanded by students for a variety of reasons, from pop culture to the desire to reconnect with native cultures. 

“By offering less commonly taught languages, UA not only shows its appreciation of diversity but also offers broad options — in addition to those most commonly taught languages such as Spanish and French — for students to choose from so that students can learn foreign languages which fit into their individual future plans and studies,” said Jieun Ryu, the program director of the CLP.

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This is not just a mission for the UA, but one also promoted by the U.S. government, specifically in the Higher Education Act of 1965 20 US code § 1121, which states a necessity for the promotion of studying foreign languages. Within this is a wide array of economic, security and global incentives to have a citizen base with a grasp on foreign language and culture, especially uncommonly taught ones. 

“Language is not just a communication medium," Ryu said. "It carries world views of the people who speak the language. It is amazing to know how a language reflects ideologies and cultures and vice versa. Also, it is amazing to know how each language and its people are similar and different from each other and how it plays a role in communication, business and so forth.” 

Census data shows that the number of people speaking a language other than English at home has increased from 13.8 percent in 1990 to 21.8 percent in 2017, with speakers of Hindi, a language offered through the CLP, seeing an increase of 254,000 speakers since 2010. 

What separates this program from typical UA language courses is the less formal structure of courses. There is a large variety of languages, from Gaelic to Swahili, offered in the program, which are often requested by a student or initiated by a native speaker. 

Courses often fluctuate in size and availability based on the growing popularity of a culture, which often leads to a rise in individuals learning the language associated with that culture. 

“I took Korean because I wanted to expand my knowledge of East Asia," said Jesse Reyna, a former student enrolled in the Korean language CLP courses. "Plus, I had an interest in South Korean culture to begin with. Korean 101 differed from my other classes in that it felt very specialized. Many of my classmates had specific reasons for learning Korean.”

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Still, due to the circumstances, many of these courses don’t attract large admission rates, with only around 300 students enrolling in courses each semester despite 12 different languages being offered in the recent spring semester. 

“Classes are small, so students are leading their own study more,” said Sojung Choi, previously a Korean language teacher in the CLP and current instructor within the newly established EAS program. 

CLP courses are taught by an instructor in a smaller and more individual setting. The class sizes are small in comparison to formal language courses at the UA, which typically feature around 20-plus students. 

Large classes can be seen as a drawback in language courses due to the decreased interaction students have with using the language. As Korean language classes grew in popularity, leading to them being formalized in the EAS program, class sizes also began to grow; subsequently, there was less interaction between the students and instructors. 

“We have 25 to 30 students in the classroom sometimes,” Choi said. “Interaction between students is good, but I have less of a chance to understand all of the students.”

Courses typically meet two hours per week for small-group sessions with a native speaker serving as a tutor in combination with a focus on self-study outside of class. In contrast, formal classes often require five days of attendance, a more top-down structure, and a lecture-based approach from the instructor. While this limits individual interaction for students, it also gives them more direct guidance to follow and less ambiguity in studying.

“It’s really dependent on the type of student they are,” Choi said, adding that in formal courses “[students] need to come, they are forced to do something”. 

CLP courses instead require a strong focus on individual study and a good deal of self-motivation to commit to weekly studying, allowing for students to have more individual interaction with instructors and an opportunity for collaborative learning with their peers. 

"The class was 3 days a week and had a good amount of homework needed done each class," Reyna said. 

However, the necessity of self-study also introduces the possibility that students could lose focus. 

"To be successful at CLP courses, skills that would be required to be successful at online and/or hybrid courses – such as time management, motivated, persistent and so forth – would be expected from CLP students due to its self-instructional model,” Ryu said. 

Courses, however, are not offered based on student preference and are instead determined by the popularity of classes. So even students who may prefer the self-study approach are unable to do so if the number of enrollments rises, creating an incentive to formalize the program and increase the scope and size of the language’s courses. 

“CLP tutors are passionate about their languages and cultures," Ryu said. "Tutors also like flexibility in terms of scheduling, but there are also times that they wish there were more in-class hours for more practice.” 

As popularity shifts between cultures, the demand for language courses will shift as well, making it necessary to implement adaptive course designs and a diverse set of options for students. 


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