Home The Washington Diplomat May 2011 Despite High-Tech Translation Tools, Local Multilingual Learning Thrives

Despite High-Tech Translation Tools, Local Multilingual Learning Thrives

Despite High-Tech Translation Tools, Local Multilingual Learning Thrives

In a recent video segment for the New York Times called, “The Monolinguist’s Crutch,” assistant technology editor Sam Grobart gleefully divulges that he can’t remember any of the Spanish he learned during six years of taking it in school.

Does this concern him? No, he says, because “now, thanks to technology, I don’t have to!”

Grobart goes on to demonstrate the capabilities of several new smartphone applications, including UN Translator, which can understand dozens of languages. “All I have to do is type in the words I don’t know,” he said. The app gives a passable translation that allows him to at least get the gist.

The Google Translate app takes this a step further. It can “hear and speak more than 50 different languages,” Grobart said. He tests it with a Spanish-speaking colleague, asking his device whether he may ask her a question. But the Google Translate app mistranslates this, speaking it as “where is the question?”

Photo: Isabella & Ferdinand Spanish Language Adventures
Alexandra Migoya and Pilar O’Leary, below, created Isabella & Ferdinand Spanish Language Adventures in 2008 after realizing they could not find an immersion program for their own daughters that combined high-caliber language instruction as it’s taught in Spain and Latin America with an exploration of Spanish history and culture.

Such hiccups aside, the new translation apps are impressive. They take machine translation, a field with a decades-old pedigree, including the Georgetown-IBM experiment in Russian-English translation that made headlines in 1954, and deliver it to the smartphone-wielding masses. More than a diversion, these translation apps can actually help people who don’t share a common language to communicate, given the right situation.

While Google Translate and related tools are sure to benefit many people, and not only “monolinguists,” they will not satisfy those for whom foreign language learning, more than a technological challenge, is a pathway to cultural exploration, a social activity and a vehicle for professional advancement, among many other things.

And in a city as multicultural as Washington, D.C., being multilingual can be a badge of honor. Sometimes it’s also prerequisite, especially for diplomats and specifically for ambassadors, for whom understanding different languages is often part of the job description.

To gain an overview of local language learning options, The Diplomat interviewed several institutions that offer classes for children and adults in Washington. Not surprisingly for a city full of embassies, international organizations and cultural institutes, the city’s offerings are extensive — far greater than could be featured in a single article.

But more than being great in number, language learning programs in the nation’s capital stand out for their international affiliations and unique educational approaches. They are all united by a passion for the intense adventure that learning a foreign language can provide.

This journey begins at an early age — as young as 12 months — at Isabella & Ferdinand Spanish Language Adventures, headquartered in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington. The program’s co-founders, Pilar O’Leary and Alexandra Migoya, believe that Spanish is best learned while young, and with as much cultural exposure as possible.

The duo — both of whom have roots in Latin America and share a passion for languages, as well as Georgetown law degrees — created Isabella & Ferdinand in 2008 after realizing they could not find a Spanish immersion program for their own daughters that united “the teaching of high-caliber Spanish, taught the way it is at the highest levels in Spain and Latin America, combined with rich history and culture.”

O’Leary and Migoya found they were not alone and that other parents wanted their children to be raised bilingually, with the high standards of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and the Madrid-based Instituto Cervantes. They developed a curriculum in partnership with the Georgetown Spanish Department, embassies of Spain and various Latin American countries, along with other institutions to teach children Spanish “free of Spanglish, Anglicisms or slang,” as they put it.

In addition to this focus on proper Spanish, the Isabella & Ferdinand program takes advantage of its D.C. location, with excursions for children and parents to Spanish and Latin cultural events at venues such as GALA Hispanic Theatre and the National Gallery of Art, where students recently went on a treasure hunt to find works by Catalan artist Joan Miró.

The program has also brought in actors to personify the cultural heroes it teaches about, including Christopher Columbus, O’Leary said. In addition, it has had clinics on flamenco dancing and taken children to the Mexican Cultural Institute to see the Day of the Dead displays. “We’re always on the lookout for new things to expose kids and families to,” she said.

While the program is relatively small, with a total of four teachers and classes of eight students on average, O’Leary foresees its expansion as the demographic makeup of the United States continues to shift toward Spanish speakers and more parents realize the value of starting their children’s language learning while they are still very young. In the next five to 10 years, she says, they would like to have a presence in several “attractive markets” beyond D.C., including Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

In the meantime, Isabella & Ferdinand is gearing up for the launch of a children’s music record in Spanish, “Olé and Play!” on April 19 at the Library of Congress to raise awareness of the nationwide launch of the Isabella & Ferdinand curriculum.

Another new entrant to the Washington market, by way of Chicago, is Language Stars, which opened its new language immersion center for children in Reston, Va., last month. Founded in 1998, the company has served more than 20,000 students through its center-based foreign language programs as well as school-partnership programs.

So far, Language Stars is mostly based in Chicago, though it’s been expanding its presence in the D.C. region with locations in Bethesda, Md., and Alexandria, Va., in addition to the new Reston center. There, nearly 100 students — ranging in age from one to 10 years old — are being taught Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and French by a team representing more than 21 nations.

Even if one is not lucky enough to learn a foreign tongue at such a young age, adult education opportunities in widely used languages such as Spanish and, more recently, Mandarin abound. If you want to learn a language such as Turkish, however, your options are more limited.

This lack of opportunities, combined with increased interest in the language due to Turkey’s growing importance as a pivotal global player in a combustible region, inspired the Rumi Forum to start offering Turkish classes last year.

The Rumi Forum, a D.C.-based organization dedicated to interfaith and intercultural dialogue, was founded in 1999 and inspired by the ideas of Turkish Islamic scholar and spiritual leader Fethullah Gülen. Rumi Forum executives had heard that numerous people in the D.C. area were interested in learning Turkish and decided to fill that niche, said the forum’s president, Emre Celik.

Photo: Isabella & Ferdinand Spanish Language Adventures

“Basically we recognized a demand, and we thought with our background and the fact this organization was founded by Turkish Americans, we could play a part in bringing that to the Washington, D.C., area,” Celik explained. “Turkey is on the rise in terms of global attention so a lot of people are wanting to improve their understanding of Turkey. And the best way to do that is through Turkish language and culture.”

So far, around 40 to 50 students have completed the intensive program, which includes eight four-hour classes per month, over a two-month span. Currently, 20 students are enrolled in classes held at the Rumi Forum offices in downtown D.C.

Though it’s still small, with a single teacher, Celik is optimistic that more people will be attracted to the classes once word gets out. He points out that learning Turkish at the Rumi Forum focuses on more than just the language — it teaches about traditions, norms, etiquette and even food.

“I think they really appreciate that — it’s more than just pen and paper classroom. We really do encourage students to pick up on all aspects of Turkish culture as that’s what will help them,” Celik said, noting the forum recently organized a Turkish dinner for its students.

Another organization dedicated to languages not commonly taught in the United States is the Global Language Network, or GLN, a unique nonprofit institution founded by polyglot George Washington University student Andrew Brown in 2005 and formally established as a nonprofit three years later.

The GLN is probably best known for offering language instruction free of charge, but its educational philosophy goes beyond teaching uncommon languages at little cost to the general public. As assistant director, Bulgarian native Svetozar Palankov explained that the GLN is as much about language learning as it is about the social interaction that accompanies it.

The GLN model works because both teachers and students are highly self-motivated, Palankov said. To enroll in a class, students pay just a $25 processing fee, plus a $100 deposit that is fully refundable, provided they miss no more than one quarter of all class meetings. The instructors are volunteers who are native speakers of the language they teach and who are motivated by the chance to share that language. They also enjoy the perk of first choice of other language classes, for which demand can far exceed supply. Palankov points to this unique aspect of GLN: that it is a learning place for teachers as well as students.

Another striking feature: The network is highly multicultural. Out of 650 students this semester, more than 100 are native speakers of a language other than English, Palankov says. The students, though averaging in their mid-20s, are extremely diverse in background and range from “VPs at Bank of America to taxi drivers.”

Though the GLN has a full-time staff of just two, it is able to serve hundreds of students thanks to its community of some 40 teachers per semester and around 25 to 30 organizational volunteers, who help to ensure the operation runs smoothly. Palankov hopes that the success of the GLN model — more than 2,000 people expressed interest in taking classes this semester — can allow it to expand out of the classroom space it occupies on the George Washington University campus to sites around D.C. and beyond.

The GLN has already partnered with organizations such as Deloitte and the International Food Policy Research Institute. Step two, Palankov says, provided the group can establish itself in D.C. and raise sufficient funds, is to expand to other cities on the East Coast. Looking ahead, he sees the model working across the country and around the world. “We have to live up to our name,” Palankov said.

The GLN, though a relatively new, unconventional endeavor, has already taught languages to thousands of students. But in terms of total number of language learners “served,” few if any D.C. institutions can match the Graduate School, founded in 1921 and formerly affiliated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In over 30 years of language classes, the Graduate School has educated more than 100,000 students and taught nearly 50 different languages. As Timothy Keating, chair of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Department, points out, despite the recent proliferation of translation technologies and technology-enabled distance learning, these tools remain at best supplemental. Demand for classroom-centered education remains strong.

“It’s not impossible to learn another language online or via audio CDs, as the many products of that sort on the market suggest,” Keating said. “But speaking a language is social interaction, and a classroom is a good place to get that. Immediate feedback from an instructor is also a very positive feature of face-to-face instruction.”

According to Keating, people choose to take language classes at the Graduate School for a variety of reasons, beyond the convenient location at L’Enfant Plaza and the breadth of languages offered, which include Farsi, Urdu and Korean in addition to the most popular languages (which are, in order: Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French and Italian).

Some enroll in language courses to enhance skills needed for their job, and others because they plan to travel to the country where that language is spoken. A third reason Keating cited is the fact that some people are “heritage speakers of a ‘home language,’ so called because they have been raised in the U.S., educated in English, but have lived in a home where a language other than English is spoken.” According to Keating, there are 55 million heritage language speakers in the United States.

Asked what trends can be discerned in the popularity of languages, Keating said that perhaps for geopolitical reasons, enrollment has shown a growing interest in Arabic and Chinese. “It is not uncommon to find that people have a kind of ‘to-do list’ for personal development, and that list includes learning another language,” he said.

Yet another longtime presence in the Washington adult language education world, the Middle East Institute has been offering courses in languages spoken in that region since 1953. With recent front-page attention to the uprisings convulsing the Arab world, the institute has seen interest in its language classes and other programs soar.

Though the Middle East Institute (MEI), located two blocks from Dupont Circle on N Street, offers courses in Arabic, Dari, Farsi, Hebrew, Pashto and Turkish, program assistant Ankit Sheth said that “Arabic is definitely the most popular, hands down.”

Around 70 percent of the institute’s students take Arabic, with Farsi becoming more popular in recent years, according to Sheth. His colleague Cameron Mackenzie noted that the institute’s language department had seen a rise in beginner Arabic, especially after all the revolutions in the Middle East.

“We tend to have a lot of Arabic 101, but this time around classes filled up prior to any others filling up. We have three sections of Arabic 101, and they filled up weeks before beginning of term. It’s a 30 percent increase in students at the 101 level,” he said.

The students who take classes at the institute tend to choose it for the unique enrichment opportunities it offers as part of a leading think tank on the region.

“I think because of the history of MEI as the oldest think tank focused on the Mideast, and because of the language department being so integrated in MEI as a good source of funding for the agency, we’ve developed a round-table philosophy — where there are small classes, all our students together with teacher who is from the region mostly, and exchanging love of learning,” Mackenzie explained.

Sheth highlighted the fact that the institute’s casual yet intensive atmosphere draws students with a strong interest in the region who seek an intimate learning environment.

“It’s the small classes. You get more face-to-face time with the teacher … and it helps you network a little bit better with people interested in the same career field,” he said. “We allow students to come in early before class, so they can converse amongst themselves … it’s more of a relaxed atmosphere, to a certain extent. You’re still very much immersed in the language while you’re here.”

The resurgent interest in the Middle East Institute’s language classes is additional proof that traditional language education, far from being supplanted by new technologies, is alive and well in Washington. Because as much as an app or online learning tool can help people speak the same language, without person-to-person contact, things can still get lost in translation.

About the Author

Jacob Comenetz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.