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Use It or Lose It

Knowledge of a foreign language — no matter how basic — is key to cultural fluency.

Think back to the four years of Spanish, French or German you took in high school. Don’t remember much? You’re not alone. Language instruction in America is notoriously ineffective. There’s a heavy focus on grammar and vocabulary with almost no practical application or cultural connection.

That’s why the Languages Across the Curriculum (LxC) ( program at Binghamton is such a revolutionary idea. LxC is not a language instruction program, but a language use program. Its ultimate goal is to give absolutely every Binghamton student — from the most basic language learner to the near-fluent speaker — the opportunity to apply their language skills and intercultural knowledge to a wide range of academic subjects.

For example, back in 2004, a Binghamton history professor gave an assignment to the Spanish-language LxC study group in her class. They were to search Spanish-language newspapers newspapers for articles on the U.S. presidential election and report back on what writers in Spain, Venezuela, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru were saying about Bush and Kerry.

“The students, in addition to learning a variety of perspectives on the elections in the U.S. from the Spanish-speaking world, plus new vocabulary, got an idea of which newspapers fell into what political group,” says Dr. Suronda González, director of LxC. As they were learning how to critically read texts, students also gained information about the historical foundations shaping perspectives on relations with the United States.

Every semester, about 10 courses at Binghamton offer LxC study groups. All it takes for LxC’s traditional model is five students with an interest in the same language in the same course to form a group. In past years, LxC has supported study groups in Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, French, Hebrew, Japanese and Global English, a group for non-native English speakers that explores English-speaking perspectives worldwide.

In the spring 2008 semester, the World of Business course had LxC study groups in Cantonese, Global English, French, Italian, Korean, three Spanish sections and a multi-lingual section. Multi-lingual study groups are for languages with at least two high-level speakers, but not enough students for a stand-alone group. A multi-lingual group might include two German, two Japanese and two Italian speakers.

The study groups are lead by trained members of Binghamton’s remarkably diverse international graduate student population. These Language Resource Specialists (LRS), says González, spend much more class time offering first-person cultural insight than grammar lessons.

What’s remarkable about the LxC program is that it works just as well for foreign language novices as for “heritage learners,” the over 30 percent of Binghamton undergraduates who grew up speaking a language other than English at home.

“In some instances, there’s a disconnect between the language of home and the language of the academic world,” says González. “We’re trying to emphasize that knowledge is constructed in all of these languages.”

González credits the overwhelming success of LxC to the caliber and curiosity of Binghamton students.

“They are the ones who are pushing this program,” says González. “They are the ones who are going out and recruiting professors. They are the ones who are saying, “We need this!”

Find out more about upcoming LxC courses or how to become a Language Resource Specialist at the Languages Across the Curriculum website.

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Last Updated: 10/14/10