Getting Their Words' Worth


Listen and repeat: language-lab life

Listen and repeat: language-lab life.

Les Todd.

Polish your tones!" Carolyn Lee, professor of Chinese, reminded her class. Usually, it is all Mandarin, all the time, with Lee, but these were beginners, students with zero previous experience, and what Lee was hearing wasn't quite right. Pacing the aisles of Carr 102 on East Campus last semester, she listened as they struggled to make a new sound. "Go deeper on the vocal chord," she said. "Nee joo-ay. Nee joo-ay."

If you were to take the path of least resistance to fulfilling your graduation requirements--which includes a minimum of three courses in a foreign language--you would probably not sign up for Lee's class, "Chinese 1: Elementary Chinese." To do so, for most native English speakers, is to enter a world of linguistic complexity, a language so overwhelmingly foreign that it merits the Foreign Service Institute's Category IV ("super-hard") classification. Indeed, for the "non-heritage learner," the student whose contact with Chinese culture and language begins and ends with the fortune cookie, few first-time experiences could be as daunting.

For starters, there are the more than 50,000 characters (although one can get by, it is said, on about 3,000); the 403 possible spoken syllables; and the 1,320 hours of instruction--almost three times that of Spanish--required for the student of "average language aptitude" to reach speaking proficiency, according to the Defense Language Institute, which is run by the U.S. Air Force and claims to be the largest language institution in the world.

Enrollment in Lee's class has increased every year for the past eight years--a measure, perhaps, of just how large China looms in the eyes of students. "And it's not just more students," says Lee. "It's different students, more dynamic backgrounds. A lot of them are interested in pursuing pure scholarship. But we also have students in public policy, political science, art history, engineering, who want to learn Chinese to use in their careers."

"I already speak Spanish, so I felt like Chinese would be the next most useful language," says Kyle Nishkian, a sophomore in Lee's class. "It's one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. And, supposedly, China is growing as an economic power."

"Maybe I'll be a diplomat," says sophomore Cara Petty, "or an ambassador. If I could become fluent--that would be a huge asset for me. But it's a very time-intensive ordeal: class five days a week. I have to endure."

"I plan on becoming a doctor," says Cyrus Amoozegar, a freshman. "The popular consensus is that in ten years the foreign language to know will be Spanish. But China is industrializing and opening its economy to foreign investors. And I think those doctors who are able to speak Chinese will be sought after."

In 2003, the Modern Language Association (MLA), a scholarly association with the mission of strengthening the study and teaching of language and literature throughout the world, found that more U.S. college students than ever before (1.4 million) were studying a foreign language, and that American colleges and universities offered a greater variety of language courses than in any of the previous five years. "The tongues of American college students are rolling R's in record numbers," reported The Chronicle of Higher Education. And while Spanish remained the most widely taught language in the land, accounting for 53 percent of total foreign-language enrollment nationwide, the number of students taking Chinese had grown fivefold since 1970.

"I think many of them take it as a challenge," Lee says of her students. "And I respect them for their determination. I know it's not an easy course." Lee, a linguist who is a native of Taiwan, characterizes her teaching style as "organized, clear, and caring," and says she's rewarded by seeing her students change so much over the semester. "They come to class with no idea about stroke order or tones. And in the end, you see them, and they've found a new part of themselves. They're different people.

"Learning a language has such an impact. It's intimate. You build up cognitive development from the first day to produce the correct sounds. It's like you're making a new molding for the brain."

Ellen McLarney, an assistant professor of the practice of Arabic, compares it with going to the gym. "You can train yourself. You can teach your throat and your mouth and your tongue how to articulate the sounds." Like Lee, McLarney has seen enrollment in her class swell in recent years. Her elementary Arabic class doubled in size following the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington. "People always try to connect it to that," she says. "And that was part of it. And, yes, there are definitely people who want to take this class for strategic reasons. But I think it's also that this generation has much more of a global consciousness. They actually know where the Middle East is, whereas, when I went to Brown [in the early Nineties], we didn't even have Arabic."

Shireen Khoury, a sophomore neuroscience major in McLarney's class and president of the Arab Students Association, is a Palestinian American from West Virginia. "Arabic is just a very expressive and beautiful language," she says. "And it's relevant to my life. The year after I graduate, and before I go to medical school, I'm going to work in a refugee camp in Ramallah, in the West Bank."

A senior math major from New York, Yousef Mian already knew how to read and pronounce Arabic before taking McLarney's class. Like a lot of Muslims, he says, he was taught at a young age to recite the Quran, the holy book of Islam. "But I didn't actually understand any of it," he says. "It's similar to how Catholics are taught to recite Latin in church and don't necessarily understand it. And also, I felt like it's probably a very important language to learn nowadays--given America's foreign policy."

Air Force ROTC cadet Joanna Mullen, a junior, had the same thought. She'd heard about the thousands of intelligence documents written in Arabic that were piling up at the State Department because of the shortage of qualified translators. "This will probably ensure me job security for several years," she says. "That's one reason I decided to learn Arabic."

According to the MLA survey, the number of students taking Arabic nationwide nearly doubled between 1998 and 2003, increasing from 5,505 to 10,596. Still, despite the surge in interest and the energy focused on the Middle East, Arabic remains on the periphery: Less than 1 percent of students taking a foreign language are enrolled in an Arabic course; and, as of 2003, just one in ten colleges and universities (of the 780 the MLA polled) included Arabic in their language offerings.

"There are socio-economic reasons for Arabic seeming foreign to people," says McLarney. "And I feel like, ideologically, that is where my vocation lies--in battling that perception. Arabic is not something strange. It's accessible. And it opens itself up once you dedicate yourself to knowing it."

McLarney majored in French at Brown. After graduating, she joined the Peace Corps and taught English in Morocco, where she learned her first words in Arabic. "I loved learning Arabic. It was so fun," she says. "People were so welcoming and encouraging and excited. They'd say, 'Oh, you speak a word of our language! Come to our house! Have tea with us! Live with us forever!'" The experience contrasted with her time in France, she says, when she studied at the Sorbonne. "I knew a lot more French than Arabic. But in France, nobody cared. They were cold, rude, mean, hostile."

Clare Tufts, professor of French and director of the French Studies Program, has heard it before: Parisians are a bit--prickly. "Well, can you blame them?" she asks. "Paris is the number-one tourist destination in the world. And summer is peak season. So when Parisians meet tourists, they're tired and they're hot and they're not on vacation."

Tufts is just as quick to defend French itself--"You know, it's spoken in over fifty countries"--although at Duke she needn't make much of an effort. The language of Voltaire and Flaubert, of Amelie and John Kerry, may be struggling to maintain its significance on the world stage. (French has effectively ceded to English its long-recognized role as the language of diplomacy.) But it has suffered no such setback in American higher education. At Duke, even as Chinese and Arabic gain ground, curricular options expand, and Spanish continues to attract the most students, French thrives. Last year, enrollment was its highest (at 418 students) since 1987, the year Tufts arrived.

"I studied Spanish, Italian, German, Latin, and French, and French was the one I stuck with," Tufts says. "You just fall in love with something and keep doing it, I suppose. Obviously, they would all be helpful. But, I'll tell you," she says, "it's my dream to learn Chinese."

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