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Language courses remodeled

By Molly Chiu     9/22/11 7:00pm

Foreign languages at Rice are getting a makeover. Because Rice students are behind in language study compared with other universities, 100-level language courses will now meet for five hours per week instead of three.

The initiative is led by Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway, Director of the Center for the Study of Languages Wendy Freeman and Associate Director of the CSL Jose Narbona.

Shumway said that Rice will be increasing the number of class days per week beginning next fall. Rice is also looking into the possibility of increasing contact time for 200-level courses by one hour.

"Our goal is to increase foreign language competence and proficiency," Shumway said.

Recently, an outside review committee determined that introductory language courses at Rice were not as comprehensive as they could be and that Rice students were, on average, behind the national average in foreign language capabilities. According to Shumway, these problems seemed to be stemming from a lack of student-to-professor contact hours in the classroom.

"You cannot learn a language without interaction," Shumway said. "Face time with the professor is essential."

Freeman said that the increased contact hours would help to increase proficiency.

"Research shows that it takes about 720 hours of intensive study at the Foreign Service Institute for an adult with high aptitude to become proficient in a foreign language," Freeman said.

Shumway said this initiative would catch Rice up to the national average. Most of Rice's peer universities have five-day-per-week language courses at the beginning level, he said.

Brown College sophomore Alison Moscoso said that she would appreciate having class five times a week.

"It would be great to be able to practice and use the language on a regular basis," Moscoso said.

In order to find class times that accommodate the greatest number of students, the Student Association Academics Committee is working together with Shumway to create a student focus group which will start meeting on Monday, Sept. 26.

New major

In addition to strengthening introductory language courses, Shumway is also proposing what is tentatively called an International and Area Studies major. The proposal, which is awaiting approval, is aimed at increasing the number of students who learn a foreign language and then use it to study abroad.

The major would consist of 10 classes, with a choice of four possible fields: European studies, Asian studies, Latin American studies and Middle Eastern and African studies. For each field, students would be required to take one common introductory course that would focus on challenges involved in understanding another culture. After completing this introductory course, students could move on to courses in their chosen field. Courses would have to meet a few distribution requirements — two in the humanities and two in the social sciences.

According to Shumway, the program includes a required semester abroad, a language proficiency requirement and a senior thesis in the student's chosen field. The thesis could be written in either English or the language that is being studied. While abroad, students would take up to four courses toward completing the major and meeting the distribution requirement. For the language requirement, students would need to prove a high level of competence in reading, writing and speaking in the language that they are studying. The senior thesis would be a directed study on a topic relevant to the chosen field, using sources written in the language of study.

The International and Area Studies major would be separate from the language studies majors that Rice already has. However, according to Shumway, there would be overlap, for example, between a Latin American and Hispanic Studies major.

"Although this would be a free-standing major, we anticipate that many students will use it to double major," Shumway said.

Freeman said that in addition to being a great experience, a semester abroad can help students further their career options.

"If you seize opportunities to explore and experience things in a foreign country, you push your language and critical thinking skills," Freeman said. "Employers look for graduates who can speak and write well, who can gather knowledge from different sources and relate well with others. They know how important it is to have a cross-cultural understanding. Characteristics such as creativity, problem-solving and maturity all develop during extended stays abroad."

Moscoso said that she supports studying abroad, and that the addition of an International and Area Studies major would be an excellent double major.

Dandan Liu, co-chair of the SA Academics Committee said that she is excited by the potential of the International and Area Studies major.

"I think the foreign language program can only be strengthened by a study abroad major," Liu said. "Students will have more of an incentive to immerse themselves in a specific culture, and in doing so, they will be able to use their language skills out of the classroom context and apply it to real life."

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