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LEARNING TO SPEAK IN A VARIETY OF TONGUES
STANFORD - Gregory Lackides, a Stanford University medical student, is a second-generation Greek American who has wanted to learn how to speak Greek since he was in junior high school.
Karin Schwindt, a senior majoring in history, is writing an honors thesis on an episode known as the "Igbo women's war" in Nigeria and felt that knowledge of the Igbo language would enhance her understanding of the culture.
James Finn, a lecturer in computer science, has visited Thailand, is interested in living there one day and wants to speak Thai fluently.
All three found what they were seeking through Stanford's Special Language Program. The program, administered by the Linguistics Department, offers instruction in languages not commonly taught and not sponsored by language departments.
The program was started in 1972 in response to student requests, and offers courses when enough students ask for them. Generally, said program director Eva Prionas, who came to Stanford as a graduate student and earned her doctorate in education, five or more students are needed in order to establish a class in a particular language.
Demand for some languages has been steady over the years: American Sign Language, Arabic, modern Greek, Hebrew, Swahili and Tagalog. Other languages have been added in more recent years, including Indonesian, Thai and Vietnamese. A number of African languages currently are being offered, including Hausa, Igbo, Shona and Wolof. Several American Indian languages have been offered; this year, Calvin Fast Wolf is teaching beginning Lakota.
In the 1992-93 academic year, the program has offered 20 languages per quarter.
In general, Prionas said, the program has operated on a shoestring. In the last two years, because of budget cuts, it has been difficult to respond to all requests, she said.
Most of the teachers in the program are native speakers of the languages they teach. Often they are already at Stanford to study or do research, and then are recruited as language teachers. Almost all have had previous experience in teaching language.
Ravi Dhillon, who teaches Punjabi, also works as database coordinator for the Network for Student Information at Stanford.
She loves teaching, she said. "In my other job, I act like a machine all day long. This [teaching] comes from inside."
Sizeka Rensburg, who has just started teaching Zulu, is the wife of a graduate student in the School of Education. She has a master's degree in business administration and has taught English to small business owners in her native South Africa.
Khalil Barhoum has taught Arabic at Stanford for eight years. He earned his doctorate in linguistics at Georgetown University, and taught Arabic there and at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Mina Ben-Meir Sikular, who teaches Hebrew, first spent a year at Stanford in 1983-84 and returned in 1991. In Israel, she taught American students in a special program at Haifa University.
Michael Maduagwu, who teaches Igbo, is a Fulbright scholar doing work at the Hoover Institution and the Center for African Studies.
The small size of the classes allows for intensive and individual instruction, the teachers say.
"Students can't just sit there and not be involved," Ben-Meir Sikular said. "It's impossible."
The small classes, Barhoum said, allow him to monitor the progress of each individual, so when he recommends a student for study programs abroad, for example, he knows very well the extent of that person's language facility.
Noni Burke, who teaches Indonesian, said that in intermediate and advanced classes, she can accommodate special requests. She will find Indonesian magazine or newspaper articles on the eruption of volcanoes for a geology student, and articles on health care for a medical student.
The teachers supplement whatever texts are available with a number of teaching aids. The class size allows for innovations in curriculum and teaching style, Prionas said.
With the help of a grant from the Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning, Prionas said, "we have been developing and using multimedia to demonstrate techniques for teaching uncommonly taught languages."
Students seek out the program for a variety of reasons. Some need a language for academic research, either here or abroad. Others have more personal reasons: learning about their ethnic heritage, for example.
Barhoum said that when he began teaching Arabic, very few of his students were Arab Americans. Now, he said, in every beginning class there are Arab American students eager to explore their roots.
Some students combine the personal and the academic. Mairi Dupar, a senior majoring in international relations, had lived in Indonesia for a year as a volunteer English teacher. At Stanford, she studied intermediate Indonesian so that she could write to her Indonesian host family and friends. She then went on to study at the advanced level in order to do research for her honors thesis on foreign aid to Indonesia.
Lackides, who is attending medical school on the five-year plan that allows students the time to enroll in non-medical courses, began studying Greek so that he could write letters to and converse with members of his family on the Greek island of Ikaria. As his knowledge of the language grew, he found he could combine it with his medical studies.
In the summer of 1991, a travel-study grant from the medical school allowed him to do research at the University of Crete School of Medicine's Institute for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. In the laboratory, he said, the common language was English, but outside the lab, his Greek allowed him to talk with physicians and learn about the Greek medical system.
The special language program, Lackides said, has been of "incredible value" to him. "I hope that one day I will be able to return the contribution this program has made to my life," he said.
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