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Languages Across the Cirriculum and Around the World

by Roger Allen

With the advent of the global communication era, it is inevitable that issues of language and communication will become more complex. Money markets in various major cities of the world watch the patterns of activity at those to the East of them and react accordingly. The many professional areas of life for which this university provides expertise and training are finding themselves venturing into parts of the world for which there has previously been little concern or in some cases access: the nations and societies of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, for example.

Has there been an era in which there are more readily available opportunities for the cultural competent professional? Set against that, the prevalent dictum in this country has for a long time been that "they all speak English anyway." But, as business concerns have often discovered, the consequences of such a posture have not always worked in their favor. Chevrolet spent a lot of money trying to find out why their Nova model did not sell well in Puerto Rico, until they discovered that "No va" means "it doesn't go" in Spanish. Coca Cola decided to keep their admittedly famous name when they first introduced the beverage to China; the only problem was that those sounds mean "Bite the wax tadpole" in Chinese (the phrase that replaced it means, I am told, "Happiness in the mouth"). If communication with cultures beyond these shores is indeed a key to success in a global economy, then the real winners will be those who can access those cultures on their terms and not only on ours. It is with these ideas and aspirations in mind that the 21st Century initiative has included the introduction of the Foreign Languages Across the Curriculum (FLAC) program into its agenda.

Languages at Penn
The learning of foreign languages at Penn (and at most other American colleges and universities) is a direct reflection of curricular priorities at the primary and secondary levels. The "language requirement" in three of the four undergraduate schools here (the Engineering School has no language requirement, at least so far) reflects a belief on the Universitys part that, whatever amount of foreign language students may have studied before coming to Penn (including none at all), all undergraduates should demonstrate that they have acquired some basic competence in at least one foreign language before graduation. The key word here is "basic." On the government scale of language proficiency, our "language requirement" is termed "survival competence" (Government Level 1, called "Intermediate" on the ACTFL-ETS scale). In other words, when the majority of
our students manage to "satisfy" the undergraduate language requirement in their school, they are actually just on the threshold of a stage at which they might be able to make applied use of their foreign language. It is this situation that our FLAC program wishes to address.

The FLAC Program
The FLAC program consists of two types of course: The first is what might be termed a "full FLAC course." Such a course is a university, school- and department-based course like any other; the course material, academic standards, modes of evaluation, and organization will all reflect the goals of that school, department, and instructor. There is just one difference: it will be taught in a language other than English. The second type of course is the one we have termed a "bridge FLAC course." These courses are still language courses; their beginning level is beyond that of the language-requirement (i.e. they are above levels 1-4), but they differ from current language courses offered at that level in that the material on which they focus will be a specific topic/content area: e.g. Politics, Business, Nursing, Medicine, Gender, and so on.

The goal of this program is that, by taking "bridge" courses that are focused on particular topic-areas, students will be able to apply their foreign language competence to academic areas that interest them and are part of the rest of their undergraduate program. Completion of a "bridge" course should provide further encouragement to students to (a) consider taking courses to
fulfill some part(s) of their program abroad; and/or (b) take a "full" FLAC course at Penn in a topic of relevance to their under-graduate degree program.

In the fall semester of 1997 we have started the program with three courses: two in French, and one in Russian. The instructors involved have chosen as the subject-matter of the course particular topic-areas (one of the French courses looks at issues in contemporary French politics, while the Russian course concentrates on business materials); in some cases this has involved the instructor traveling to the country concerned in search of authentic materials, in others the acquisition of up-to-date materials in paper and/or electronic forms. In the spring semester of 1998, we are going to expand the program in terms of both languages and topic-areas. Current plans call for the offering of at least six bridge-FLAC courses, split equallybetween European and Asian languages and covering topics such as commerce, music, media, and history. As part of the FLAC program, we will also be providing a list of "full-FLAC courses" on particular topics that are taught entirely in the target language.

There is a wide variety of models for FLAC programs at American universities. Penns new program aims to take best advantage of our universitys particular characteristics and strengths, no more so than through the existence of its four undergraduate schools, with their mixture of liberal arts and applied, pre-professional program options. The FLAC program provides an opportunity for all Penns undergraduates to expand their cultural horizons by engaging with at least one other world culture and its social codes, and to do so within the framework of their personal goals and academic choices.

Talk About Teaching is in its fourth year as a series co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching. Dr. Allen is Professor of Arabic and Co-Director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business. He also chairs the Provost's Committee on FLAC.

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, October 21, 1997, Volume 44, No. 9