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Mentoring in Modern Languages

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    Erika Berroth incorporates language, literature and culture into the German classes she teaches at Southwestern. (photo by Carlos Barron)

Professors at Southwestern take a unique approach to teaching foreign languages – and it pays off

What do Southwestern students studying or working in China, France and Germany have in common? Many of them have been exploring opportunities abroad thanks in part to close mentoring from faculty members in the Modern Languages and Literatures Department as early as their first weeks on campus.

Erika Berroth, associate professor of German and chair of the Chinese, French and German programs, says that each professor in the department intentionally works toward forming global citizens. “From the very beginning of the semester, we emphasize how the close study of language, literature and culture brings flexibility and quickness of mind,” she says. “We show that these skills are constantly developing along a continuum, allowing students to reinvent themselves and discover more about others through literacy in different languages and cultures.”

The achievements of graduates from these three Southwestern programs underscore the department’s successes in sustained mentoring from beginning language learning to coaching seniors in their application processes for fellowships, internships and advanced degree programs. In the past two years, for example, six graduates have gone on to work abroad in education supported by Fulbright Teaching Assistantships and three graduates have received English Teaching Assistantships offered through the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

In the German program, Berroth interviews incoming students to evaluate their language level and set long-term goals. She says faculty members in the department are gaining training and experience in following guidelines developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages for oral proficiency interviews. This is a global assessment of functional speaking ability, used worldwide for the purposes of placement, assessment, certification or professional qualification. Berroth expects faculty members in Chinese and French to integrate it into their work later this year.

In addition, Berroth has received grants to broaden Southwestern’s Environmental Studies offerings. She recently traveled to Berlin to participate in the 12-day Faculty Development Seminar titled “Germany as a Model?” which focused on developing sustainable options for meeting rising energy needs. Contemporary German Culture courses are already cross-listed with Environmental Studies, and Berroth’s course on German Environmentalism will become part of the London Program for 2010 as “Cultures of Environmentalism.”

Carl Robertson, associate professor of Chinese, has likewise prioritized intentional advising that moves students toward seeing the world with new eyes. According to Robertson, the Chinese program sets benchmarks for language learning that develop the whole person. “As a small liberal arts school, Southwestern is especially well-equipped to provide a tight focus on both national learning standards and the individual students themselves,” he says. “Even in the early parts of the language sequence, we challenge students to examine the Chinese heritage and consider their role within diverse social groups.”

During their studies at Southwestern, students are given the tools and enthusiasm they need to engage in Chinese throughout their lives and careers without feeling intimidated. “Students of Chinese language and culture acquire a unique perspective, not only for understanding China, but for actually changing the way they consider the world around them, including how to learn and solve problems,” Robertson says. “Studies show East Asian culture produces distinctive patterns of thought, which combined with Western traditions gives students broader perspectives and capacities of thought.”

Robertson has fostered the growth of Southwestern’s Chinese program from 13 students in 2002 to roughly 50 now. “The percentage of the student body in Chinese courses is higher than other comparable schools and programs,” he says. “Many of these students choose to study abroad in China, and then continue there in productive careers.”

Aaron Prevots, assistant professor of French, says cultural immersion at Southwestern plays a large role in motivating students to explore opportunities abroad. “Through coursework that integrates a range of cultural skills, students already grapple with larger questions in French I through IV and become all the more excited to absorb information firsthand among native speakers,” he says.

Prevots adds that the Modern Languages and Literatures Department has noticed an increase in the number of incoming students wanting to learn several languages. “One of the best parts of our job is seeing such a natural interest in our range of offerings,” he says. “For example, students may round out their education with extra coursework in a second or even third language for greater flexibility in their studies and careers.”

Francis Mathieu, assistant professor of French, adds that perfecting skills to help students get the best jobs is a top priority. “We challenge students to develop sharp analytical skills and to think critically,” he explains, noting that these skills are precisely the most desirable ones employers are looking for in job seekers.

The Office of Intercultural Learning also plays a key role in this process through its careful choice of accredited study abroad programs and close advising before and after students travel abroad.

Berroth sums up the philosophy her department has on intercultural experiences by describing them as a cornerstone of lifelong learning. “We are proud to be at the forefront of current trends in education and working with all our colleagues across the curriculum to make regular and paired majors a key component of our multilingual graduates’ professional success and personal view of the world,” she says.