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 Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


ALTEC acquires new language programs, expands technologies
by Melanie O. Massengale, University Communications

Mark Knowles, director of ALTEC, CU-Boulder’s Anderson Language Technology Center, asserts that although technology can enhance our ability to communicate, “the old-fashioned way is still best – people talking to people.”

Since assuming ALTEC’s directorship in October 2008, Knowles has taken the center in new directions. Along with regular courses in more common foreign languages such as French and German, social media combined with partnered language learning techniques permit the teaching of rare languages on a small and more personalized scale. For example, several students are now learning Tibetan. Knowles describes Tibetan as a “mini-phenomenon at CU-Boulder, ” a language that, along with Polish, now has demand. “There are three Tibetanist students—in anthropology, religious studies, and geography—who need this language for their fields,” he said.

Knowles came to ALTEC from Yale University, where since 2003, he had served as Assistant and Associate Director of the Center for Language Study specializing in teaching, learning, and research. Knowles brought to CU-Boulder his experience with DILS, Directed Independent Language Study. DILS is a Yale program that matches a small number of students with a native speaker of a language for which there are no regular course offerings. The student usually meets twice weekly with the speaker, is provided with instructional materials as needed and is tested by a certified examiner upon completion of the course.

At ALTEC, a form of DILS is in operation in the Tibetan and Polish experiments, according to Knowles. The speaking partner is key to learning, and technology is an enhancement. "The native speaker of the LCTL (less commonly taught language) is not usually an instructor, he or she is an educated speaker of the language," he said.

Knowles hopes to introduce DILS as a long-term initiative, but funding is tight. “We need to find other sources,” he said. “The three departments that support Tibetan-focused studies have been very helpful, and we have some U.S. Dept. of Education Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program grants. DILS is comparatively inexpensive at $2,000 per instance.”

Along with the emphasis on native speakers, new technologies have played an important role in the endangered languages initiative. Knowles has introduced social media to match students of these languages with native speakers. “Using a Facebook wall, for example, students forge a new identity in the language, which is a measure of success of their study,” he said. Instruction in other LCTLs is possible in the future, including Chichiwa, a language of Malawi and Zambia; Tongan, from Polynesia; and Native American tongues.

Knowles is pleased that CU-Boulder is able to offer this new learning opportunity. “We’ve energized a lot of people, planting the seed that CU-Boulder is a great place to learn other languages of the world,” he said. “My goal is to feed a belief that language learning of many different kinds is doable.”

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