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OPE: Office of Postsecondary Education
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International Education Programs Service

Alternative Modes of Language Instruction

Archived Information


As the world has grown smaller, thanks to state-of-the-art communication and transportation systems, an increasingly multicultural society at home, and growing concerns abroad, people are looking for ways to acquire proficiency in a foreign language. The U.S. government and businesses have also begun to recognize the value of foreign languages. Employers are searching for employees who are proficient in a diverse range of foreign languages but are increasingly reporting severe shortages in foreign language speakers. In order to gain valuable skills and help make themselves more marketable in the workforce, students are demanding instruction in a wider range of foreign languages than ever before.

Colleges and universities, however, face challenges in providing instruction in such a wide range of languages. For many of these less-commonly-taught languages (LCTLs1), the pool of interested students is small and demand for instruction is often irregular. Thus, many institutions cannot provide traditional language classes for these LCTLs.

In order to offer instruction in many LCTLs, colleges and universities are turning to alternative solutions to traditional language instruction. Many institutions are developing new formats for teaching with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

One way to offer quality language instruction in under-enrolled language courses is to pool resources. Summer language institutes, as the name suggests, are summer language programs where instructors and students from across the country come together on one campus to teach and learn a language intensively. By assembling learners from across the country, summer institutes can draw enough students to provide traditional, teacher-fronted instruction in languages that otherwise could not be offered at an individual institution. These intensive summer programs often combine language instruction with cultural and social opportunities so students can immerse themselves in the foreign language and culture.

For example, students interested in learning a language of Southeast Asia can attend the annual Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute (SEASSI). SEASSI provides eight weeks of intensive language instruction in languages such as Burmese, Hmong, Indonesian, Javanese, Khmer, Lao, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese. In 2004, SEASSI expanded its language offerings to include intensive instruction for heritage speakers of certain Southeast Asian languages including Hmong, Khmer, Lao, and Vietnamese.

For those interested in learning an African language, the Summer Cooperative African Language Institute (SCALI) provides intensive instruction in many African languages as well as a wide range of cultural opportunities focusing on many regions of Africa. Students can spend the summer learning languages such as Afrikaans, Akan/Twi, Amharic, Bamana, Ewe, Fula/Fulfulde/Pulaar, Hausa, Kidongo, Kinyarwanda, Lingala, Swahili, Tigrinya, Xhosa, Wolof, Yoruba, and Zulu.

For students interested in learning a language of South Asia, The South Asian Language Institute (SASLI) offers eight weeks of intensive instruction in many languages of South Asia. Students can learn a wide variety of South Asian languages such as Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, Tamil, Telugu, Tibetan, and Urdu.

In addition to the benefit of several hours of intensive language instruction each day, summer language institutes often provide extracurricular language and cultural events such as guest speaker series, film festivals, music concerts, and social gatherings.

One of the largest and most well-known summer language programs is the summer language school at Middlebury College in Vermont (http://www.middlebury.edu/ls/). Middlebury’s summer language school offers programs in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Middlebury students experience a total immersion environment at the language school. All students sign a “language pledge” by which they promise to use the second language for all communication all the time. Students use the language in and out of class to interact and socialize with friends, and to enhance the many cultural opportunities provided for language students.

Many institutions also offer intensive summer instruction in individual languages. A quick survey of intensive summer language courses at Big Ten institution shows courses in Arabic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bambara, business Chinese, Catalan, Czech, Dutch, Greek, Kazakh, Korean, Lingala, Maya, Mongolian, Ojibwe, Polish, Quechua, Russian, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Tamil, Thai, Turkish, Uzbek, Vietnamese, Wolof, Yiddish, and Yoruba. Students may enroll for these courses on campus and take advantage of the intensive summer learning to make good progress in a foreign language.

In order to accommodate individuals and very small groups of learners during the academic year, many institutions have individualized language programs. Individualized language programs (also known as tutorial programs, self-instructional programs, or directed independent language study programs) allow learners to work with a language program supervisor and native-speaking tutor to study and learn the language in a one-on-one environment. In individualized language programs, students work with a tutor and language pedagogy expert (a language supervisor) to design a language course specifically tailored to meet the students’ needs. Students meet several times a week with their language tutor for intensive, individualized practice in the language. During these practice sessions, only the foreign language is spoken. Learners are responsible for mastering assigned material on their own outside of class. Tutorial sessions are generally reserved for oral conversation and practice or focused oral drills. Often, learners are also expected to work independently on language exercises with audiocassettes or other media.

At Michigan State University, for example, Mark is a graduate student who is interested in doing dissertation field work on the relationship between communities and schools in Guinea, West Africa. Before the semester began, Mark, the tutor, and the language supervisor met to discuss his learning goals. In collaboration, they customized an individual learning plan that incorporated the cultural information and language goals that were identified as most important for Mark to achieve.

With the learning plan negotiated and agreed upon, Mark, his tutor, and the language supervisor created a specialized curriculum for him to follow. He worked each week with reading texts developed and/or selected specifically for him on topics relating to his needs. He would study important vocabulary from the text, practice pronunciation of key terms and phrases that he would need for his life and research in Guinea, and engage in weekly discussions, listening activities, and pronunciation activities with his tutor on topics relating specifically to functions and tasks he expects to have to accomplish when he travels to Guinea. With the help and guidance of the language supervisor, Mark was not only able to acquire important vocabulary, discourse, and content information related to his academic field of interest, but was also able to increase his overall proficiency in the language. Mark’s advanced language proficiency in Fulfulde, due in part to his tutorial-based learning of the language, was a key factor in his obtaining a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Award from ED.

As the capabilities of technology have increased in recent years, so too have the number of projects to develop distance-learning courses for foreign language learning. Distance learning provides one solution to the problem of language course delivery where there is low or sporadic demand. Distance learning can also help institutions offer languages for the first time and build on their offerings to develop sufficient enrollments and eventually offer the language in a traditional classroom format.

Distance-learning courses are available in various modes. One of the earliest to be developed, and most common modes of distance learning, is the video conferencing course. In this instructional mode, a traditional language classroom (at both the "send" and "receive" sites) is outfitted with technology for interactive two-way videoconferencing (ITV). In this way, students at both the "send" and the "receive" sites can interact with each other and with the instructor. In a sense, the instructor teaches two classes simultaneously.

The University of Wisconsin System has developed a large ITV foreign language program through its Collaborative Language Project. The Collaborative Language Project uses ITV to provide instruction to various campuses in the UW system in languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Russian. Other universities that provide language instruction through ITV include Lewis and Clark University, which shares instruction of Nez Perce and French with the University of Idaho-Moscow, and Indiana University, which sends instruction in Uzbek and Kazak to several institutions in the Big Ten.

Another common mode for offering distance-learning courses is the online course. Here, learners study the language online, meet other learners and the instructors in live chat rooms, have discussions on bulletin boards, or communicate with fellow students and instructors through e-mail. Michigan State University has developed an online distance course in intermediate Portuguese that relies heavily on the online environment for language learning. This course is a hybrid, which requires that in addition to the online work, students also meet twice weekly for face-to-face interaction in Portuguese.

Universities are also beginning to use the hybrid approach to manage over-enrolled language courses such as Spanish and French (e.g., Michigan State University, Pennsylvania State University). In these courses, students attend class 2-3 days per week and work online 2-3 days per week.

Through the efforts of universities and language associations, many of which are funded by ED, colleges and universities are providing more language courses through alternative modes of instruction. As a result, students have broader access to language study than ever before — and students are demanding it. American culture, business, and government are more multicultural and international than ever before, and so the need for people who are proficient in a wide variety of foreign languages continues to grow. Colleges and universities, through developing alternative programs for language instruction, are playing an important role in preparing their students to succeed in this new global society.

1Less Commonly Taught Languages, or LCTLs, represent all foreign languages that are less frequently taught in the classroom. This term refers to all instructed foreign languages except English, French, Spanish, and German.

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Last Modified: 01/21/2011