Foreign Language Learning at Community Colleges

By Bowman, Karen Doss | International Educator, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Foreign Language Learning at Community Colleges


Bowman, Karen Doss, International Educator


AN ASPIRING OPERA SINGER WITH SIGHTS SET ON AN INTERNATIONAL CAREER, 19-year-old Meagan Martin understands the importance of being able to pronounce and interpret German, French, and Italian - the languages in which the world's most famous operas are written. By focusing on gaining fluency in these languages, Martin believes she'll have an edge over the competition at audition time.

"By studying foreign languages, I will be much more competitive in the international opera world," says Martin, who began language studies in high school with Spanish and French. "IfI audition in Germany, for example, they will be more prone to pick me as a singer if I'm already able to communicate because most of the opera houses don't want to pay for a translator. So being fluent in the language will be a real advantage and will help me to be more competitive with singers from different backgrounds, some who have grown up speaking these languages."

Three years ago, during the summer after her sophomore year of high school, the Newbury Park, California, native took her first German course at Santa Monica College (SMC), die local community college where her father is a faculty member. Inspired by the professor and drawn to the language, Martin continued with German courses at SMC. By the time she graduated from high school in the spring of 2009, Martin had completed all four semesters of SMCs German sequence.

That fall, Martin enrolled as a full-time student at SMC, where she focused on music courses, Italian, and general education. By the summer of 2010, she had earned her associate's degree with enough foreign language credits to transfer to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as a German major. She currently is on track to graduate within the next year.

Understanding the languages in which European operas are written will not only level the competition during auditions, Martin says, but also will help to pull off better performances.

"It will be very good for my dramatic interpretation," says Martin, whose favorite composer is Giuseppe Verdi. "I'll have a much deeper understanding, word-for-word, of what I'm singing. That will allow my portrayal [of a character] to be more effective for people who do speak the language natively."

Ideal Setting for Foreign Language Study

For many students like Martin, studying foreign languages at the community college level is a growing trend. A December 2010 article in Community College Week cites statistics from the Modern Language Association that foreign language study at community colleges grew by 14 percent between 2006 and 2009. While some of that growth can be attributed to the nation's economic downturn, the article also notes that many students study foreign languages to gain an advantage in the job market.

As local communities and economies are becoming more global, community colleges are noticing and are taking steps to educate their communities accordingly. In fact, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has identified "global awareness" as one of the strategic action areas of importance affecting today's community colleges. And nearly one-half of the United States' undergraduate students attend a community college, according to the AACC.

Community colleges, by design, are intended to bring educational opportunities close to home for everyone in the community, regardless of previous academic experience, financial status, or heritage. Add to this philosophy their affordability, and it's easy to understand why community colleges are a great place for students to begin studying foreign languages.

"Given the community college demographic - people of all ages, from every walk of life and socioeconomic background who, for a variety of reasons, have for the most part not had the opportunity to be exposed to the bigger picture of their place in an ever-shrinking world - I would say international education is not just important, but essential," says Martha Bowser-Kiener, professor of French and humanities at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois. …

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