Tag Archives: language learning

Grad Student Summer: Language Study in China

By: Virginia L. Conn

Virginia China 1

Chinese culture spans thousands of years of history and encompasses numerous ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority groups, all of which contribute to the national dialogue. Much of this valuable history, however, is contingent upon oral histories, many of which are fading away (or being actively suppressed) as Mandarin becomes increasingly standardized. This is especially true of the oral histories of minority groups; dependent upon human memory and the spoken word, the only way to preserve these valuable histories is through oral fieldwork and, often, through reading and preserving items of popular culture, such as songs, films, and comics. My own academic work deals with the impact that access to new technologies—such as the internet, social media, and texting—has on oral traditions, especially those of multilinguistic groups (such as the Hui people’s use of xiao’er jing, for example, or those Uyghurs who use one language for business and bureaucracy and another for religious matters). To engage with this type of linguistic production, I needed to be able to document and understand the artistic styles or linguistic textures through which cultural memories are conceptualized, performed, and passed on, as well as analyze the context of the community life in which they are presented. It’s critical to my ability to effectively perform a systematic collection of living people’s testimonies that I speak their language, without going through a translator to collect and preserve their memories. To this end, I spent the summer in China at Soochow University, using funds from the Mellon Foundation and the Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship.

Virginia China 2

From June to August I was fully immersed in Chinese language study—class from eight to four, followed by at least four hours of homework a day. The classwork was the least intensive part of the program, however; I lived with an older Chinese woman, a native of Suzhou who had lived through some of the most turbulent periods of China’s history and was delighted to engage with me on all levels of conversation, from table manners to current governmental policies. Living with this woman was indescribably valuable in learning more about the language and culture, especially the ways in which daily life has been affected by rapid technological and economic progress (both for better and for worse). Her native language was not Mandarin Chinese, but suzhou hua, a “dialect” of Suzhou that she did her best to teach me (without much success, I’m afraid). Ideally, once I acquire a more comprehensive grasp of Mandarin, I will also begin studying several Chinese minority languages, but for now the summer program at Soochow University was absolutely necessary to improving my Mandarin skills to a point where I will be comfortable enough in one language to begin branching out into others.

Grad Student Summer: Latin/Greek Institute

By: Joseph Hong

Like many graduate students, I decided to use my summer for language training. As an early modernist interested in the revival of classical texts during the Renaissance, I enrolled in an intensive Latin program that ran from May to August. The program is offered through the Latin/Greek Institute, a collaboration between Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. The courses offered this summer were Basic Latin, Basic Greek, and Advanced Greek. The workload was formidable to say the least and because the program has existed for over forty years the pedagogical methods have been refined to be highly efficient and logistically precise.

In the Basic Latin Program I spent ten weeks with fifteen other students not only learning the entire Latin morphology and grammar but also reading canonical texts by Virgil, Cicero, and Augustine. The first five weeks of the program were spent learning the entire Latin language. Because Latin is an entirely fossilized language, there is a finite body of grammar and word forms that have been codified. This means that one can learn only the words that exist in the corpus of Latin texts. For example, some verbs have only been used in the past tense, and thus we were expected to learn the conjugations only for the past tense even though the verb in question might theoretically be able to be conjugated in all tenses. This first half of the program was arguably the most rigorous, as the program covered in one day an amount of material that might be taught in a month in a typical university-level Latin course.

The second half of the program focused exclusively on literature. During the latter five weeks we read selections from Cicero, Sallust, an entire Book of Vergil’s Aeneid, and selections from Horace. The second half also included an elective course. Students chose between reading St. Augustine, Ovid, or Tacitus. These electives allowed for an opportunity to work in smaller groups and to read more closely into the content and style of the text.

The Latin/Greek Institute demands nearly complete dedication to the program. Students in my program spent a conservative average of twelve hours each day working with Latin, either in class or by working on homework. I can’t deny that the Institute produces results. Most students started without knowing any Latin and all finished the program being able to read Cicero and Vergil by sight.

Language Learning Online with italki

Comparative Literature students pride themselves on the study of literature in multiple languages. However, during the semester it can be a challenge to prioritize language learning. If you want to fit more language study into your schedule this semester, italki.com is truly a hidden gem for language learners.

Italki is an online language-learning community of over one million teachers and students. What makes italki unique is that it connects you with native speaker teachers around the world through one-on-one Skype lessons.

If you’ve been meaning to work on one or more languages, I encourage you to check out italki for yourself or to share it with your students. Here’s why:

  1. The online platform

Italki.com is absolutely seamless. The process of scheduling Skype meetings, transferring payments, and evaluating lessons seems like it should be very complicated. However, italki is extremely well organized. When you want to schedule a lesson, you search for a teacher in your price range that is available when you want to study. You schedule your lesson and then connect with your teacher on skype. After the lesson is over, italki handles the payment. This website makes everything so easy that you can focus on your lessons and not have to worry about all of the logistics.

  1. One-on-one lessons

When I arrived at Rutgers, I was struggling to find ways to improve my French skills. I knew my French was too advanced for an undergraduate grammar course, but not nearly advanced enough for a graduate literature course. Many of us find that our language skills do not match up with any of our options for formal language instruction. One-on-one lessons on italki give you the flexibility to begin at your current level and focus on the specific skills that you want to develop. In my case, I found a French tutor with an interest in reading and we slowly worked our way through a few novels together. The one-on-one lessons gave me so much more feedback than I could’ve gotten in a traditional language classroom or by studying on my own. I progressed much faster than I had when I had been spending many more hours a week in a grammar class in college. Also, the commitment of talking to your teacher each week helps motivate you to continue to work independently on the language in between lessons.

  1. A wide range of teachers

Italki has a variety of teachers with different levels of professional training, experience, and pricing. Depending on your language level, your learning style, and what skills you are working on, you can experiment with multiple teachers until you figure out what works best. There are professional teachers with a full curriculum who teach grammar and assign homework. Some of these teachers make excellent use of the video chat format by using tools like screen-sharing websites, Prezi, and the Skype chat function. There are also college students with no training in language pedagogy who will practice casual conversation with you. Since you don’t enroll in a formal course, you can experiment with a variety of teachers until you find someone who works for you. After a few lessons or a few months, you can easily start working with someone else. The flexibility lets you experience a wide variety of teaching approaches and also can expose you to different regional accents and vocabulary. Before scheduling a lesson, you can see a teacher’s profile, video introduction, and student reviews, which helps you find someone that you will enjoy working with.

Bonus: Many teachers offer half hour trial lessons for somewhere between $1 and $5. This gives you the opportunity to meet teachers, even those at a higher price point, without spending a lot up front.

  1. Work as a tutor

If you enjoy taking lessons on italki, you can also sign up to tutor your native language or another language you speak fluently. This is an ideal work opportunity for students because you set your own hours and prices and you can work from home. You can also easily offer more sessions over breaks and fewer sessions during the busiest parts of the semester. I’ve really enjoyed talking to English students from around the world, and working on italki allowed me to fund my language lessons. Also, talking to motivated language learners helps me to continue my own language study.

Italki also offers language exchanges where two students can connect for free over Skype to practice. For example, an American and a Chinese student could meet on Skype and speak in English for a half hour and then in Chinese for a half hour. I have not used this feature, but it offers another way to use this language learning community for free.

  1. Language challenges

If you like having an extra bit of accountability, italki sponsors language challenges a few times a year. For these challenges, students commit to taking a certain number of lessons in a limited time period (past challenges have included 12 hours of lessons in a month or 20 hours in six weeks). Students commit to the challenge by making a $10 pledge. If they complete the challenge, they receive $30 towards more language lessons. Every time italki announces a language challenge, a group of students commit to the challenge by making a public YouTube video demonstrating their current skill level. After the challenge, many students post videos documenting their progress. Check out these before-and-after videos from the New Year’s 2015 20-hour language challenge.

If you have any questions about italki or would like recommendations of French, Spanish, or Portuguese teachers, please be in touch.