Cal State Long Beach Receives $100,000 NEH Grant for Languages

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded Cal State Long Beach’s (CSULB) Romance/German/Russian Languages and Literatures (RGRLL) Department a $100,000 grant to support its French and Italian for Spanish Speakers Initiative.

The NEH grant will allow CSULB to expand its current program into area high schools and community colleges, including San Pedro High School, Wilson High, Long Beach City College and Rio Hondo City College.

“Participants from each school will work together as a reading, research and curriculum development group.  The idea is to create some courses just for Spanish speakers,” said Clorinda Donato, the grant project’s principal investigator and CSULB’s George L. Graziadio Chair of Italian Studies.  “One of the first campuses we asked to join was San Pedro High School, which offers classes in French and Italian to its largely Latino enrollment.  Long Beach City College teaches French and Italian while Wilson High and Rio Hondo Junior College have just French.  By the end of the grant period, all four campuses should have special sections for Spanish speakers.”

Donato noted that the French and Italian for Spanish Speakers Initiative tests the idea of “intercomprehension” or teaching and learning of more than one language at a time.  Programs like these, she said, could change the way schools teach languages.

“We begin with what students already know, then, using that, they can learn something else by enhancing what they already know,” she explained.  “Old teaching methods treated students as if they were blank pages. ‘Take away everything you know about English because now you will learn something new.’  Instead, this method looks at both English and Spanish as bridges to learning French and Italian.”

Working on the initiative with Donato is Claire Martin, project director and Spanish professor, and Markus Muller, content specialist for the project and RGRLL language program.  Donato also expressed thanks to CSULB College of Liberal Arts Dean Gerry Riposa, who, she said, has been extremely supportive of this initiative and its expansion in a number of ways, including outreach to other departments and resources that made it possible for Martin to participate in drafting the winning proposal with Donato.

Donato believes the program offers Spanish-speaking students a way to use their knowledge of one language to learn a new one.  “It is a way to validate a potential for linguistic competence these students don’t know they have,” she said.  “With instruction that validates their knowledge of Spanish through a method that emphasizes the intercomprehension of the Romance languages, Spanish-speaking students are at a clear advantage when it comes to acquiring that second Romance language.”

Donato said other campuses have expressed interest in the French and Italian for Spanish Speakers Initiative.  When the project was first presented at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages conference in Denver in November, the CSULB presenters were approached by many teachers who wanted to do the same at their schools.

“We’re really excited.  We think this is the way of the future (for teaching these languages),” she explained.  “As the level of Hispanic enrollment rises nationwide, the opportunities for French, Italian and Portuguese instruction also rise.  You don’t have to be a heritage speaker to enroll, but many students are.  Many students enroll if they have learned Spanish elsewhere.  In the college context, we get students who have learned Spanish in high school.  These students have the potential to come out trilingual. That makes them much more marketable.”

Donato pointed out that the grant process is highly competitive and feels the approval of this grant represents the culmination of nearly seven years work.

The road to acceptance, she said, began six years ago when RGRLL began a conversation with the French consulate after it recognized the department for its combination under one roof of French, Italian and Spanish.

“Plus, the students here are encouraged to learn more than one language,” she explained.  “The idea for the funding was to create new audiences for French. One of the new audiences we want to focus on is that of Spanish speakers. We recognized that the NEH had a special category for Hispanic Serving Institutions.  CSULB has been designated a Hispanic Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education, and we applied under that rubric.”

The grant will allow the program to make new plans and seek more support. “When you’ve got an endorsement from the NEH, you go with it,” she laughed. “One of the great things about getting the grant is the way it provides the resources, time and people to lay the groundwork for the future.”

Spring 2012 Issue

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