A revolution in language
New French and Italian courses at the UCI are aimed at Spanish speakers
From Megan Cole
Learning languages takes time and effort, with hundreds of hours of study for a basic level and thousands of hours for a higher level of mastery. However, a new course series at the University of California at Irvine is based on the idea that for Spanish speakers who want to use their language skills as a basis for another Romance language, this time could be drastically reduced to a few months.
The UCI’s accelerated language courses for Spanish speakers are designed to teach students who are fluent in Spanish in their mother tongue or second language a related language – either French or Italian. Modeled on a program developed at California State University in Long Beach in 2010, the accelerated French and Italian courses for Spanish-speaking UCI courses are currently the only courses of their type in the UC system. They were launched with the support of the UCI Basic Education Department.
At the forefront of these accelerated language courses are Maryse Mijalski, a French teacher who speaks the French for Spanish course, and Emily Cota, an Italian teacher who speaks the Italian for Spanish course. The courses were largely developed in response to the UCI’s growing Hispanic / Latin American population. As of 2020, a quarter of the total UCI population has been classified as Spanish, along with a third of the School of Humanities students. After Mijalski realized that many Hispanic / Latinx students who had signed up for their French classes already spoke Spanish, she realized that their existing language skills could be better used with a course specially designed for them.
“When UCI became a Spanish-speaking institution in 2017, it made perfect sense to develop a French program where students could use not only what they already knew as a bridge to learn French, but also to share their culture and appreciate language. Says Mijalsky. “Instead of teaching French as a monolithic, monolingual course,” she explains, the accelerated course helps “appreciate and nurture the cultural and linguistic diversity of students”.
The French route debuted for the first time in winter 2020 and 76 students have enrolled since then. The Italian route started in the last quarter with 22 students. Typically, UCI language courses are taught over a three-quarter sequence, but the accelerated routes only require two-quarters of the class. In the French track, Mijalski uses the same textbook and curriculum as the non-accelerated courses, but has revised many materials to highlight comparative links between Spanish and French. In the Italian track, Cota uses a book called Juntos: Italian for Speakers of English and Spanish, Third Edition (Hackett Publishing Company, 2020). The book was written by professors from California State University, Long Beach, who specialize in the benefits of intercomprehension in language courses, and the book was specifically designed for Spanish-Italian acceleration courses. Students on both accelerated tracks are also introduced to more complex short readings – including news articles, poems, and passages from novels – than their counterparts in the regular track, allowing them to accelerate their language acquisition.
John H. Smith, President of the UCI’s Department of European Languages and Studies, appreciates that the French and Italian courses for Spanish-speaking students already multilingual offer an opportunity not only to quickly learn another language, but also “about it ponder what it means to learn and master a language “in general.
“[For Spanish-speaking students]Learning another language in college, especially a Romance language related to Spanish, gives them a fresh look at their own linguistic background, ”says Smith. “Not only is it relatively easy for them to learn a new Romance language that gives them access to a new culture, literature, tradition and a new job market, but it also gives them an insight into how their own language works. My educational principle is: You can only have a new perspective on yourself if you deal with something different or foreign. “
Mijalski agrees, noting that her students appreciated not only the similar grammar and syntax of French and Spanish, but also the cultural similarities between Francophone and Spanish-speaking countries. An unexpected bonus of the accelerated French courses is that many students have noticed that their Spanish grammar and vocabulary have improved, and have developed a greater appreciation for their Spanish language and culture, as well as their newfound appreciation for French.
Cota also counts the desire for new cultural perspectives to be one of the core motivations of her students. She says the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a new yearning for languages and cultures in many of her students, who originally wanted to learn Italian out of pandemic-induced boredom, but soon found that the language made a much deeper impression.
Briana Martin: After completing her fifth year in Political Science, Briana Martin, she took Cota’s Italian course for Spanish speakers in the final quarter. For example, her plans changed completely after graduation. After starting in June, Martin now plans to do an MA in Italian or Translation Studies and possibly even move to Italy.
“[My Spanish knowledge] It was beneficial to navigate my first steps in Italian, ”says Martin, noting that the presence of Spanish speakers in class and the“ unique class structure and textbook ”brought them one step closer to mastering the language and teaching have achieved their goals.
“I’m sure countless Americans dream of visiting Italy, and I’ve been one of them for as long as I can remember,” says Martin. “Today I dream of really immersing myself in the culture and learning the language is the first step for me. I’m so happy that I got up and chose this class. “
Many of Martin’s classmates have similar wishes to travel to Italy and experience the culture firsthand once the pandemic has subsided. Some even work together to create a new student organization, Club Italia, that continues to practice Italian beyond the classroom – a sure sign, says Cota, that the program’s early success will continue.
“[We have] seen the benefit of having a community of Spanish speakers, most of whom are first and second generation Latin Americans, the opportunity to use their bilingual skills to learn another Romance language, ”says Cota. “It is important to show students that multilingualism can start with their existing language skills and lead to more language opportunities.”
In our increasingly connected world, it is more important than ever to maximize these language opportunities, adds Smith.
“We live in a global world, and yet the way to truly thrive in this world has not been emphasized enough to our students. That way is to learn about other cultures and the best way to do that is by learning other languages, ”says Smith. “Many of our students already speak another language besides English – in fact, English may be their second language. But new languages open up new worlds. ” The more the better.
Students wishing to enroll in French or Italian for Spanish speakers should visit the UCI European Languages and Studies Department’s website.
Photos: First photo shows Emily Cota on left and Maryse Mijalski on right, credit – Steve Zylius; The second photo is by Briana Martin, credit – Briana Martin