Liberal Education

Something to Talk About: The University of Rhode Island's Multilingual Graduates Go Global

At a time when language programs around the United States are in crisis—a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article reports that hundreds of programs have been closed in the past few years1—the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures is realigning its curriculum to emphasize proficiency and intercultural competence within a strong liberal arts context. The result of the department’s recent initiatives? More than 750 students, nearly all of them in dual-degree programs, are majoring in one of five different languages: German, Spanish, Chinese, French, and Italian, with the option to minor in Arabic or Japanese.

Through a focus on language for careers, the university’s language programs have given students from a variety of majors experiences that prepare them to be bilingual engineers, diplomats, computer scientists, business executives, health-care workers, and other professionals in our multicultural, international economy.

Curriculum with an international focus

Innovation in languages at the University of Rhode Island (URI) has a long history. With the founding of the international engineering program more than thirty years ago, URI created a collaborative model in which colleges and departments create interdisciplinary programs with a global focus.2 The International Engineering Program combines a strong engineering program with immersion in a foreign language and culture. Students in this five-year program are required to spend their fourth year abroad, completing a mandatory semester of study at a partner university followed by a six-month internship in a company or research facility. While students benefit by becoming bilingual engineers, engineering firms benefit, too, by having cultural ambassadors in residence who can contribute innovative thinking from both their knowledge of two cultures and their training from within the arts and humanities that traditionally trained engineers may lack.

Other signature international programs include the International Business Program, the International Pharmaceutical Sciences Program, and the International Studies in Diplomacy (ISD) program, which is URI’s newest option and offers students coursework in economics and political science in addition to a target language.3 In all of these signature international programs (for which the language options vary), students develop a high level of language mastery, building vocabulary specific to their disciplines. They also have options to prepare for living and working in another culture by participating in short-term immersion experiences in summer or January before they spend either a semester or a full year abroad to study and complete internships at various companies in the host country. Examples include IBM in Milan, BMW in Munich, and Bayer Technology Services in Shanghai.

When Johanna Leffler first arrived at URI, she planned to double major in French and political science but switched to the new ISD program, seeing it as “the perfect fit because it prepares students to go into fields of diplomacy and international work, which is exactly what I want to do.” This academic year, Leffler will study French in Rennes, France, at the Institute of Political Studies, with support from the URI Foundation’s Beatrice S. Demers Foreign Language Fellowship.4 Several other URI students have received the prestigious David L. Boren Scholarship, given by the National Security Education Program, to fund their study abroad, which is a vital part of becoming proficient in a foreign language.

“I really enjoy how almost every semester, key themes across my classes intersect with each other,” Leffler says about the ISD program. “I take classes from multiple disciplines for my program, such as political science, economics, history, and anthropology, so it’s really cool to see that interconnectedness.”

One 2018 URI graduate studied for six months at Universidad de Zaragoza in Spain, taking language and engineering classes all taught in Spanish, and then interned for another six months as a project manager for SEAT, an international car manufacturer in Barcelona.5 A 2019 graduate chose to minor in Arabic and spent nine months studying at the University of Jordan on his way to serve in the military.6 A Chinese Flagship student spent her capstone year in China and interned at an international engineering firm with an office in Shanghai.7 With these international experiences, students can pursue global job searches and showcase their adaptability and understanding of diversity.

The proficiency turn

In order to assess students’ language and cultural mastery, particularly in a way that demonstrates their abilities to future employees, URI’s language department has set specific benchmarks using proficiency guidelines from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).8 Language majors undergo testing twice during their studies. In order to earn a degree in these international programs, students must not only study abroad but also achieve a required level of speaking proficiency on the ACTFL guidelines; for the ISD program, for example, students must achieve a minimum language proficiency at the advanced low (or B2) level or above to complete the ISD program.

To achieve the advanced-low speaking proficiency in the target language, students engage in communicative learning practices starting in their introductory-level language classes. Rather than a traditional grammar-focused lecture followed by drills, instructors flip the classroom so that students can prepare for a lesson through video tutorials. They then engage with their peers using the target language for situations they are likely to encounter when visiting and learning in a foreign country. In an activity that involves planning a journey by train from one foreign city to another, for example, students focus on formulating questions and building vocabulary for purchasing train tickets or asking for assistance in the target language.

Going forward, students may be tested for their proficiency level before and after studying abroad. But the ability to speak and be understood deepens with a rich understanding of the culture—what is considered appropriate, what the norms and expectations are, and how to show respect for differences; thus, some programs may also test for intercultural competence.9 The data collected from these assessments will allow languages faculty to continue to adjust the curriculum to most effectively help students learn. The department also recently hired LeAnne Spino-Seijas, assistant professor of Spanish, to help lead the proficiency initiative and Bing Mu, assistant professor of Chinese, who specializes in intercultural competence.

The entire department, representing a wide diversity of languages and research specializations, shares the common goal of ensuring that URI students will be prepared to use their target language in the workforce. Faculty members are updating courses as needed, undergoing training in testing student language proficiency, and implementing the proficiency testing, according to Spino-Seijas.

While a number of faculty members have backgrounds in languages and literature, rather than in second-language acquisition or linguistics, they realize that proficiency and intercultural competence is needed for current and future success in the global economy and that such study still requires the critical thinking, imagination, and empathy often associated with learning acquired in humanities courses.

“The liberal arts foundation students receive by learning the language, the literature, and the perspective of another culture,” says Sigrid Berka, executive director of the International Engineering Program, “builds not only intellectual skills like critical thinking and novel approaches to problem solving but also empathy and altruism.” 

Notes

1. Steven Johnson, “Colleges Lose a ‘Stunning’ 651 Foreign Language Programs in 3 Years,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 22, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Colleges-Lose-a-Stunning-/245526.

2. “International Engineering Program,” University of Rhode Island, accessed September 5, 2019, https://web.uri.edu/iep/. See also Karin Fisher, “In Rhode Island, an Unusual Marriage of Engineering and Languages Lures Students,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18, 2012, https://www.chronicle.com/article/An-Unusual-Marriage-of/131905.

3. “Signature International Programs,” University of Rhode Island, accessed October 2, 2019, https://web.uri.edu/global/study-abroad/signature-international-programs/; “International Business Program,” University of Rhode Island, accessed October 2, 2019, https://web.uri.edu/business/academics/undergraduate/international-busin... “International Pharmaceutical Program,” University of Rhode Island, accessed October 2, 2019, https://web.uri.edu/pharmacy/academics/ipsp/; “International Studies and Diplomacy Program,” University of Rhode Island, accessed September 5, 2019, https://web.uri.edu/politicalscience/academics/isd-program/.

4. “Sixteen URI Students Win Grants to Help Study Foreign Languages across the Globe,” University of Rhode Island, accessed October 4, 2019, https://today.uri.edu/news/sixteen-uri-students-win-grants-to-study-fore....

5. “Commencement 2018, URI Engineering Graduate Studies in Chile, Spain,” University of Rhode Island, accessed October 4, 2019, https://today.uri.edu/news/commencement-2018-uri-engineering-graduate-st....

6. “Student Spotlight: Evan Cummiskey, ’19, on How Arabic Changed His Life,” University of Rhode Island, accessed October 4, 2019, https://web.uri.edu/artsci/news/student-spotlight-evan-cummiskey-19-on-h....

7. Language Flagship programs are federally funded by the US Department of Defense and are a branch of the National Security Education program. There are currently 31 Flagship programs—for Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, and Turkish—at twenty-one institutions. URI’s Chinese Flagship program is featured on https://thelanguageflagship.org/ ; “Chinese Language Flagship Program: Emily Hadfield,” University of Rhode Island, accessed October 4, 2019, https://web.uri.edu/chineseflagship/emily-hadfield/.

8. “ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012,” American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, accessed September 10, 2019, https://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/actfl-proficie....

9. Assessing intercultural competency is still open to debate. One way to assess intercultural communicative competence (ICC) is to use an assessment tool like the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI). By answering fifty questions, students are mapped on a continuum with monocultural mind-set situated on one end and intercultural mind-set on the other. This assessment tool can be employed in pre- and post-curricula, as well as pre– and post–study abroad programs, to look at students’ developmental trajectory. This assessment tool can be found at https://idiinventory.com. Some experts, however, consider the development of ICC as a process, and thus, the assessment of ICC would be steered toward assessing what authentic tasks students are able to do and to what extent they can participate in another culture. The assessment is carried out during the course as an ongoing process in which students participate in role playing and conduct real-life tasks.


Nedra Reynolds is associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island.

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