New GC Institute Focuses on Language Education at CUNY

November 2, 2012 | CUNY Graduate Center

“Across CUNY, we teach about twenty-five languages, and students speak almost two hundred languages other than English in their homes,” notes Greet Van Belle, until recently an adjunct professor of French at Queens College and now the first interim director of the newly established Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context (ILETC).

The ILETC will serve as a central place within CUNY where faculty members like Van Belle, who face unique challenges in teaching foreign languages to an incredibly diverse population, can go for ideas, support, encouragement, and strategies. Housed at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, the ILETC’s mission is to leverage CUNY’s—and New York City’s—vast linguistic resources and coordinate the high-level research, leadership, and advocacy necessary to deepen, broaden, and catalyze CUNY’s significant strengths in world languages and cultures.

The state of language learning at CUNY has been on the radar of many of the university’s chief academic officers for some time. At their request, in late 2011 GC Provost Chase Robinson organized a task force, charged with creating a formal proposal for a new language education center. Thanks to the efforts of this task force, headed up by José del Valle, executive officer of the GC’s Ph.D. Program in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages, the CUNY Board of Trustees approved establishment of the ILETC in June 2012. In addition to aid from CUNY’s Central Office, the institute will receive support from Hunter and Queens Colleges, the two four-year CUNY campuses with the highest ratios of foreign language credits attempted by students.

With her background as both a transplanted Belgian who has studied linguistics, bilingual language pedagogy, and French literature, and a foreign language instructor at Queens College, Van Belle feels well suited for her role as the ILETC’s interim director and looks forward to helping CUNY’s foreign language faculty identify best practices when teaching in such an incredibly culturally and linguistically diverse environment. “We want to take the knowledge and skills that so many of our students already possess, and turn them into an even greater asset,” she asserts. “We also want to minimize the challenges inherent in simultaneously teaching ‘heritage’ speakers and first-time learners of a particular language and culture—be it Spanish, Russian, or Bengali.”

Though the ILETC is still strategizing and gathering strength, a few early initiatives are already under way. These include a plan to offer a semester-long workshop by and for graduate teaching fellows, adjuncts, and any willing language faculty who wish to share and/or learn best practices. In addition, the ILETC is inviting CUNY faculty members and students to submit (by the end of April 2013) one- to two-minute video clips containing anecdotes, interviews, musings, rants, or other relevant forms of creative expression, which will form the basis of an informal but informative video about the complex world of language learning at CUNY. (For more about these initiatives, write to: iletc@gc.cuny.edu.)

Also in the works are strategies to integrate the teaching of a language within or for use by the community. “For example,” says del Valle, now chair of the ILETC’s advisory board, “we have here a large Haitian Creole community. The ILETC can offer ideas about how teaching the language could help the community, and how the community might help the teaching . . . and not just the language but the culture, since, after all, teaching language also entails teaching cultural skills.”

Assisting del Valle and Van Belle in their efforts is an impressive advisory board of CUNY linguists and foreign language teachers. Included are GC doctoral faculty members Evelyne Ender (Prof., Comparative Literature, French); Ofelia García (Prof., Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages, Urban Education); Hermann Haller (Prof., Comparative Literature, French); Miki Makihara (Assoc. Prof., Anthropology, Linguistics); and William Tsuyoshi McClure (Assoc. Prof., Linguistics). Also on the board are Hunter College Associate Professors Lisa Marie Anderson (German), Rosa Alicia Ramos (Spanish), and Christopher Stone, head of Hunter’s Arabic program; and Queens College Assistant Professor Miryam Segal (Hebrew).

“The ILETC is here to help faculty, to make it easier for them to serve our students better,” emphasizes Van Belle. “Our goal is to keep faculty updated on the projects that we are involved in. And if they are interested, we welcome them to join with us.” For more information: iletc@gc.cuny.edu.