Critical Languages: A Bridge to Understanding

Posted On June 28, 2017
Categories Featured

Written by Kysa A. Daniels 

People who speak multiple languages always fascinated Ajah Ochoa. Growing up, she’d watch her uncle, a native Nicaraguan, talk on the phone to someone in Spanish, then switch to Portuguese or English to talk to another person.

“I thought it was a pretty cool trick,” Ochoa said. “So, I said, ‘I’m going to be one of those people who can switch it up and speak to them in their language and not always have to speak English.’”

She set a goal to learn five languages, and thanks to the World Languages pathway at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College, she’s making progress. Ochoa took four (Arabic, Russian, Spanish and Swahili) of the college’s 12 World Languages courses before graduating in May.

“The fact that we are offering as many languages as we do is incredibly unique for any college, but especially for a two-year college with more than 18,000 students” said Ann Sarnat, who oversees Perimeter’s Critical Languages program on Clarkston Campus.

A website review of larger associate degree schools in the Southeast revealed that they offer fewer—sometimes half the amount—world language courses than Perimeter.  For example, Miami-Dade College has 165,000 students and offers eight languages. Northern Virginia Community College, Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College and Valencia College in Orlando each serve more than 70,000 students and offer eight, seven and five world languages, respectively.

The 12 world languages taught at Perimeter include Arabic, Chinese, French, German Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili. More than half—Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Swahili—are categorized by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs as critically in demand, meaning there is a need for more proficient speakers to meet growing demands.

Eric Kendrick is associate department chair for Perimeter’s English as a Second Language (ESL) and World Languages Department.

“People who speak critical languages are in high demand, mostly because of national security and economic development concerns, which can lead to jobs working for the FBI, CIA or global enterprises, among others,” Kendrick said.

Perimeter’s Critical Languages program is a member of the National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs (NASILP), as are institutions such as Emory University, the University of Alabama and Yale University. NASILP mandates stringent standards in exchange for allowing members to use its instructional methodology.

The NASILP approach, which places considerable responsibility on students to learn a particular language, is one of the reasons Perimeter is able to offer so many critical languages. Instead of the traditional college instructor, the NASILP methodology relies on classroom activities led by trained, native-speaking drill instructors, or tutors. By using tutors, or drill instructors, instead of traditional instructors, institutions can override the typical requirement for a certain number of students to be enrolled before a class can be taught.

Critical Language classes at Perimeter are small, with no more than seven students per class, a policy that even exceeds the NASILP recommendation of 10 or fewer.

“Being in the smaller setting did allow us to be more close knit and to get to know each other a lot better,” Ochoa said. “As you learn, you’re not so afraid to make mistakes, and so I think it’s really conducive and effective for learning languages.”

Dr. Hyangsoon Yi is director of the Korean Language and Literacy program and a Korean professor at the University of Georgia. She’s involved in Perimeter’s Critical Languages program as an examiner, a credentialed language instructor charged with administering mid-term and final exams for Critical Languages students.

“Perimeter College serves a very important mission here by offering these critical languages,” she said.

Yi also stressed the importance of critical languages for meeting economic, national security, military and cultural needs.

“The more we can enhance our cross-cultural understanding as well as help solve our conflicts the better off we are.”

The Office of International Initiatives at Georgia State University is responsible for the strategic integration and coordination of the University’s international initiatives, partnerships, grants, program development and management, events and activities, study abroad programs, and the Confucius Institute.