BEFORE Boston University junior Kelly Chow departed for the university's Summer Intensive Chinese Language Program in Shanghai last summer, she thought the "intensive" descriptor might be an exaggeration. After all, the film and television major reasoned, her father is Taiwanese and her mother is Vietnamese; as a toddler, her first languages were Chinese and Vietnamese, even though she began speaking English once she started preschool and had long forgotten her parents' native languages. She thought it would be a cinch. The language immersion experience, requiring the equivalent of two semesters of Chinese language courses surprised her.
"When they say it's intensive, [my friends and I] really didn't think they meant 'intensive,'" she says, laughing at the recollection. "But it was intensive."
Though Chow and her friends experienced brain overload at first from nearly 23 hours each week of Chinese language instruction, she says the Shanghai experience was rewarding. Now she has a better understanding of her cultural heritage, and finally, she can converse with her father in Chinese.
Clearly, language immersion programs like BU's Summer Intensive Chinese Language Program in Shanghai result in better proficiency with the target language. But that's not the only benefit of such programs, says Bret Lovejoy, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Students who engage in the intense study of language, he says, will broaden their cultural awareness and appreciation by learning more about the customs, the social structures, and the daily lifestyles of the people who speak the language they are studying.
"This expanded view of the world teaches them that there are many differences in the different cultures of the world, and yet we all share many interests, goals, and challenges," Lovejoy says. "This ultimately will lead to greater communication and relationships with other members of the global community."
More U.S. Students Going Global
Like a growing number of U.S. students, Chow recognizes that today's increasingly global society requires a better understanding of foreign languages and cultures. The Institute for International Education's (HE) latest Open Doors report, released in November, noted that during the last decade, the number of U.S. students receiving academic credit for education abroad experiences has increased by nearly 150 percent, from just under 100,000 during the 1996-1997 academic year, to nearly 250,000 for the 2006-2007 academic year.
The United Kingdom remains the top destination for U.S. study abroad students, followed by Italy in the number-two slot. Spain, France, and China, respectively, complete the top five destinations.
Interest in language study has been on the rise since 1998, according to the Modem Language Association, and the number of students enrolled in Italian language study grew more than 22 percent between 2002 and 2006. Dickinson College has an established yearlong program in the Northern Italian city of Bologna that is quite popular among the students. By December 2008, says professor of romance languages Sylvie Davidson, the program already had accepted its cap of 30 students for the 2009-2010 academic year, even though applications weren't due until February 2009. Students who wish to participate in the program are required to have at least one semester of Italian language courses on campus before going to Bologna, where they take most of their courses in Italian, Davidson says. They are given opportunities to practice their language skills not only in class, but also through weekly discussion hours in Italian with an instructor, frequent interaction with Italian students, and weekly meals with Italian families (an opportunity that is optional).
"If you don't know the language and you live in a foreign country, you are going to miss half of what the country has to offer, and …