St. Olaf News
Program increases opportunities for language study
March 21, 2013
For St. Olaf College students, learning a less traditional language is as easy as saying yes. Or, perhaps, “na’am,” “ye,” or “sì.”
The St. Olaf Alternative Language Study Option (ALSO) program offers students the opportunity to learn unconventional languages like Arabic, Korean, and, starting next year, Italian.
Operated in association with the St. Olaf World Languages Center, the ALSO program grew from student-initiated discussions about the need for alternative language instruction on campus. The courses, first offered in the fall of 2011, are led by Fulbright scholars and native speakers.
In addition, St. Olaf students who are native speakers of the ALSO languages offer tutoring sessions on a weekly basis. Midterms and finals are prepared and graded by an outside examiner, accredited professor, or instructor in the language field to ensure that students will achieve a high language proficiency at the culmination of their two years of study.
“As a whole, students are getting a complete experience,” says Renata Debska-McWilliams, the program director for ALSO. “They get the intimate one-on-one experience with a native speaker, along with an accredited assessment of their skills. This combination gives students an edge in future endeavors involving the language, including government and educational jobs and potential scholarship opportunities.”
St. Olaf’s program is unique among most liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Programs similar to ALSO are currently offered mostly at large-scale universities and some smaller colleges on the East Coast. Grinnell College is one of the few liberal arts colleges in the Midwest to offer a program similar to the one at St. Olaf.
A total language experience
The ALSO program acts as a complement to students’ studies of languages in other departments, not as an alternative. Students must complete their foreign language requirement in one of the established language departments before applying to the ALSO program. Still, the program provides the same high-level language course quality that St. Olaf prides itself on.
“A lot of our class work is self-motivated,” says Patricia Garcia ’13, who studies Korean through the program. “This allows class time to focus on speaking practice. I have found that the program is really focused on intensive and intentional language learning.”
Class sizes are especially small (courses run even with just two participants) and courses are taught as part of a student’s regular schedule. Other institutions with similar programs focus solely on oral communication, but St. Olaf’s ALSO program focuses on reading, writing, and culture as well.
“From the beginning, our class was 90 percent spoken in Koren,” says Kevin Klynstra ’13, who was adopted from Korea and has since wished to learn the language. “But despite the great workload, the class is a lot of fun. Renata says she always hears us laughing from her office down the hall, but knows that we’re getting our work done. As students, we’ve definitely bonded over the experience.”
The ALSO program is, first and foremost, a language course, with cultural experiences added supplementally.
“Class time is for learning the language,” says Debska-McWilliams. “The full experience, the cultural immersion, comes outside of the classroom in many different activities.”
These activities include weekly conversation tables (where, during meal times, students utilize language skills in discussing culture), movie sessions in the studied language, and cross-cultural discussion opportunities across campus.
A lifetime of language
The program originally offered only Arabic, but has since expanded in both scope and popularity. The recent addition of Italian instruction, for example, came especially from the growing language need of students involved in St. Olaf’s various music programs.
ALSO’s attention to a comprehensive learning experience has also given recent alumni an edge in job and graduate school applications. Two such successful students, Katherine Kinnaird ’12 and AnneMarie Smith ’12, were accepted into the prestigious Arabic language study program at Yale University after only one year of instruction in the language at St. Olaf.
“It’s definitely hard work,” says Garcia. “But the payoff will be worth it.”