A World of Languages on Campus
How can Ithaca College students become fluent in another language without living in a non–English speaking country? They can start by using the language center, now in new quarters on the third floor of the library. In a pleasant, colorful environment, they can browse international magazines like Hola or tune into interactive CD-ROM programs like Parliamo Italiano, improving their language skills as they do.
"Our mission is to promote international understanding through the study of language and culture," says language center supervisor Connie Thomas (in photo, with Ayuso Hasbun '94), "which is an important task, given the world in which we live." The goal, she says, is to encourage use of the center and language learning, both in the campus community and throughout the curriculum, by "providing a state-of-the-art facility, staffing it with a diverse group of multilingual student assistants, and developing a language collection that caters to language learners, beyond the five languages taught by my department [modern languages and literatures]."
Thomas has added to the collection 24 self-study programs of languages that are not commonly taught, from Arabic to Welsh, which attract students from other departments to the center. Says Thomas, "This enables theater students going to Moscow, anthropology students going to Madagascar or Kenya, and international business students going to Japan to arrive in the host country with some basic language knowledge." Still, the primary users of the center are the students who are enrolled in one of the five languages taught by the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures (French, German, Hebrew, Italian, and Spanish), theater students working on dialects, and speech-language pathology students studying phonetics.
Thomas feels a larger sense of mission than providing a service to departments. "It has been said that as many as half of the world’s 6,800 languages may be extinct by the end of this century," she says. "As the world becomes less diverse linguistically, due to wars, natural disasters, the adoption of national languages such as Chinese and Russian, and even government bans on the use of local languages, we need to cherish language diversity as a tool for understanding different peoples and cultures. I am so pleased to see a renewed interest in other languages like Irish and Gaelic, and have students ask to listen to those language tapes. Perhaps their parents were from Ireland or Wales. Perhaps they plan to travel. It’s just a good sign."
The language center has benefited tremendously in the last two years from a Keck Foundation grant. Part of the $446,000 grant, obtained by the Departments of Art History and Modern Languages and Literatures, enabled the center to replace a 17-year-old audio language laboratory with a multimedia language learning center. Each of the 16 student workstations contains an Internet-accessed Macintosh G4 computer interfaced with a Sony audio tape deck and a VHS machine. The room is often busy with students viewing an episode from Videomundo for Spanish class, responding to a section of the CD-ROM program Dans un quartier de Paris for French class, or listening to international news on the Internet. When not seated at the carrels, students are free to use the group study table, on which one finds current international magazines, or perhaps talk with one of the multilingual student assistants. Nearby are monitors with international newscasts airing every hour. For language students who prefer to listen to audiotapes outside the center, there is a tape duplication service. "There are always an amazing number of activities going on, but all are centered on language acquisition," says Thomas.
The center, open 77 hours a week, comes to life with the student assistants, whom Thomas hires each year to provide peer support to language learners. "These students, not just the interactive software and equipment, really contribute to the vibrancy and multicultural atmosphere of the center," says Thomas. This year, 13 student assistants, speaking eight languages, make up the center’s language-support staff. Thomas herself has studied three languages other than English. On one of the center’s bulletin boards, there is a chart listing the hours when language expertise is available, so that students needing help can drop in and request individual assistance from the student worker.
It is clear that the student assistants enjoy their work in the center. Albanian native Jonida Shehu ’03, who speaks Albanian and Italian, has been working there for two years. "The high-tech facility, the diversity of language offerings, and the diversity among the assistants make the center an interesting place to work. I also like the tutoring service, which gives me an opportunity to help other students learning Italian," she says. Another assistant, Michael Nordquist ’02, a U.S. native who recently spent a year in Berlin, expressed similar feelings. "Working in the center is a great opportunity to use my language skills by helping others. I’ve been both a beginning French student and a German teaching assistant and have seen both sides of the picture."
Although Thomas is retiring this year, she is glad to leave behind a strong resource. "As Ithaca College continues to diversify its campus community and attract students from around the world," she says, "the language center will provide a place of support and reflect the feeling that we value their languages and cultures."
Photo by Thomas Hoebel
A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 5 August, 2002