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Stressing levels of language

Justin Tardiff | Thursday, November 10, 2005

The department of modern languages at Saint Mary’s is no foreign territory for the College’s students, who are required to take at least two semesters of one foreign language to graduate.

Still, many professors consider the requirement to be insufficient and are pushing to have the requirement be one of proficiency level rather than seat time, said Mana Derakhshani, associate professor of French and coordinator of the French program.

“Two semesters of a language at the introductory level is inadequate to reach any level of useful proficiency,” Derakhshani said.

Currently, Saint Mary’s offers majors in French and Spanish and minors in Spanish, French and Italian. Students interested in a major or minor in German may pursue those studies at Notre Dame.

Along with regular class sessions, students must also spend time in the language lab, as specified by each professor.

“Research has demonstrated that the more one hears [or reads] the language one wants to learn, the more proficient one becomes,” said Derakhshani.

Nancy D’Antuono, department chair and professor of Spanish and Italian, said the lab is intended to reinforce the materials studied in class.

“A serious student usually derives considerable benefit from the language lab work,” D’Antuono said. “In most lower-level language classes, students are also required to watch one to three foreign language films in the video lab to enhance their command of the language.”

Marianne Hahn, adjunct professor of German and French, said the language lab is useful for students to help master most of the complex aspects of grammar and vocabulary. She said a potential downside to the lab is student interest.

“I recommend my students go to the lab two times a week for 30 minutes each,” she said. “Students will benefit more if they break up their time exposure.”

D’Antuono said Spanish is the most popular language offered, followed by Italian, French and German.

“A large number of students are now turning to Spanish, which is being seen as a more ‘useful’ language to learn in the United States,” she said.

Despite rumors, D’Antuono said student interest in German has not declined.

“It is rising slowly. All the languages are expanding due to globalization,” she said. “We have more students in German this semester than last year.”

Hahn said she is always impressed with the number of students who choose to take German after they have completed the foreign language requirement in a different language.

“About 50 percent of my 101 class are seniors and juniors,” Hahn said.

Saint Mary’s junior Laura Frechette took two semesters of German last year. She decided to study the language because she lived in Germany for two years.

“[German] is not a language spoken readily in America,” she said. “We don’t border a country that speaks it either.”

Peter Checca, assistant professor of Italian and counselor and coordinator of the Rome program, said student interest in Italian has almost tripled since he began in 1976. He attributes the constant rise in large part to the Rome program, but also to the students who did not have the opportunity to take Italian in high school.

“The Italian department has a very good reputation,” said Checca.

Derakhshani said many students choose to study French each year, as many have noticed a large number of people outside Europe speak the language.

Checca said he thinks students’ continued interest in romance languages is because they are similar to the English language.

The College’s study abroad programs are also extremely popular and afforded to students who are familiar with the language of the country in which they choose to study.

Sophomore education major Megan Staley is currently abroad in Rome. While she said she is not particularly good at learning another language, she appreciates what she has learned.

“I think the foreign language requirement is excellent. If it wasn’t required, I’m sure I would have never gotten involved with Italian and wouldn’t be here now,” she said. “I think most people are prepared enough [with the language] when they get here,” she said. “I mean, I’m not the greatest at foreign languages, but I’m getting by.”

Checca, Derakhshani and Hahn all said their favorite part about teaching a foreign language is watching their students become able to communicate in a previously unfamiliar language and teaching them about different cultures.

“I take great satisfaction in … guiding students in their discovery of their own cultural identity,” Derakhshani said.

D’Antuono said she sees Saint Mary’s expanding in the variety of languages offered in the near future.

“There’s no way to avoid it,” she said.

Checca encouraged students to continue taking foreign languages. He said it creates a good rapport between people of different cultures.

“I think that every student should learn as many languages as possible,” he said.