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$100,000 NEH Grant To Support RGRLL Language Initiative

Published: February 15, 2012

Romance/German/Russian Languages and Literatures’ (RGRLL) Clorinda Donato, Claire Martin and Markus Muller recently cheered their successful application for a $100,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to support their French and Italian for Spanish Speakers Initiative.

Donato, CSULB’s George L. Graziadio Chair of Italian Studies and a member of the university since 1988, applauded the contributions of project director and Professor of Spanish Martin, a member of the university since 1988, and RGRLL language program coordinator and project content specialist Muller, a member of the university since 2001.

The grant process is highly competitive. “Personally, I feel the approval of this grant represents the culmination of seven years’ work,” said Donato, who was named Chevalier of the French Order of the Palmes Académiques in 2005 and serves as the project’s principal investigator. “We had applied in 2010 without success. It is a good rule of thumb for grants that, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I was interested in re-submitting because we had gotten very close before. Then the NEH wanted more focus on what the students could do with the language and how they could acquire humanities content in languages other than English in an accelerated fashion. I felt that was easy to explain this time.”

The road to acceptance began six years ago when RGRLL began a conversation with the French consulate after their applause for the department’s combination under one roof of French, Italian and Spanish. “Plus, the students here are encouraged to learn more than one language,” said Donato. “The idea for the funding was to create new audiences for French. One of the new audiences we want to focus on is that of Spanish speakers. We recognized that the NEH had a special category for Hispanic Serving Institutions. CSULB is recognized as a designated Hispanic Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education and we applied under that rubric.”

College of Liberal Arts Dean Gerry Riposa has been extremely supportive of this initiative and its expansion in a number of ways, such as outreach to other departments and resources that made it possible for Martin to participate in drafting the winning proposal with Donato.

Donato believes the program offers Spanish-speaking students a way to use their knowledge of one language to learn a new one. “It is a way to validate a potential for linguistic competence these students don’t know they have,” she said. “With instruction that validates their knowledge of Spanish through a method that emphasizes the intercomprehension of the Romance languages, Spanish-speaking students are at a clear advantage when it comes to acquiring that second Romance language.”

The grant will expand the current program to high schools and community colleges. “Participants from each will work together as a reading, research and curriculum development group,” Donato said. “One of the first campuses we asked to join was San Pedro High School, which offers classes in French and Italian to their largely Latino enrollment. The idea is to create some courses just for Spanish speakers. Long Beach City College teaches French and Italian while Wilson High and Rio Hondo College have just French. By the end of the grant period, all four campuses should have special sections for Spanish speakers.”

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Other campuses have expressed interest in the French and Italian for Spanish Speakers Initiative. “We’re really excited,” she said. “We think this is the way of the future because when the project was first presented at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages conference in Denver in November 2011, we were approached by many teachers who wanted to do the same at their schools. As the level of Hispanic enrollment rises nationwide, the opportunities for French and Italian instruction also rise. You don’t have to be a heritage speaker to enroll, but many students are. Many students enroll if they have learned Spanish elsewhere. In the college context, we get students who have learned Spanish in high school. They can also profit from the accelerated course. These students have the potential to come out trilingual. That makes them much more marketable.”

The project tests the idea of “intercomprehension,” or the teaching and learning of more than one language at a time. “Programs like these could change the way we teach languages,” said Donato. “We begin with what students already know; then, using that, they can learn something else by enhancing what they already know. Old teaching methods treated students as if they were blank pages. ‘Take away everything you know about English because now you will learn something new.’ Instead, this method looks at both English and Spanish as bridges to learning French and Italian. This project is exciting because if offers the chance to bring together new people and create new knowledge.”

The grant allows the program to make new plans and seek more support. “When you’ve got an endorsement from the NEH, you go with it,” she laughed. “One of the great things about getting the grant is the way it provides the resources, time and people to lay the groundwork for the future. We can plan new curriculum. We will travel to Washington D.C. in February to attend the Humanities Initiatives Project Directors’ meeting, then my next stop will be the University of Venice for a week’s seminar on the intercomprehension of the Romance languages.”

–Richard Manly