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Small Group Instruction Offers Students
Chance to Learn Challenging Languages
February 28, 2000

Kaoutar Benzakour-Amine greets her three students in Arabic and begins an hour-long class period that she conducts almost totally in that language - asking questions, repeating drills, listening to student responses.

A month into the second semester of the course, the students stay with her, helped by a verbal nudge or two in the musical tones of classic Arabic.

Benzakour-Amine, a Ph.D. candidate in French and a native speaker of Arabic, is acting as a conversation partner in a special language program UConn offers to undergraduates.

"We will run a course in any language that four students want to take," says Edward Benson, a professor-in-residence of modern and classical languages, who coordinates the program. "If it's a language that's not among our current offerings, we contact the

National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs - of which we're a member - for help."

The association provides the name of an outside examiner - a person who would be eligible for appointment to the UConn faculty - and that person works with an on-campus native speaker who meets with the classes. The examiner and the conversation partner agree on the progress

expected of the students in a particular course, and the examiner visits the campus at the end of the term to make sure the goals are reached. About 110 universities or school districts in the United States and Canada participate in the program.

The courses offered at UConn through the outside examiner system this semester include Arabic, Korean, Vietnamese and Hindi. The examiners are faculty at Brown, Cornell and Yale.

"We also offer instruction (to small groups) in Chinese, Japanese, Modern Greek and Polish," Benson says. "Some of those are taught by TAs, some by adjunct faculty. They don't have the outside examiner structure."

The NASILP courses each offer four credits and generally there are four semesters for each language. Students usually take the course for more than one semester, and many take all four, in classes that may range from six to seven students in the introductory courses to two to four at higher levels.

The students must do much of their learning independently. "The students read the book on their own, and the conversation partner thinks up drills," Benson says. "They meet two hours a week as a group. Most also use tapes."

Benson and Benzakour-Amine agree that the students in the special classes usually are highly motivated. "More than half of them are 'heritage' students - their parents came from the target culture," Benson says.

UConn has offered special language classes for a number of years, but joined the NASILP program two years ago, when Benson came to UConn, after heading the languages department at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg.

Although most conversation partners are not teachers, Benzakour-Amine is also a teaching assistant in French. "I taught only French here for two years, and then I added Arabic," she says.

She notes that for the previous eight years she had been using French and English. "Now I am rediscovering my heritage," says Benzakour-Amine, who comes from Fez, Morocco. "It is very exciting. The class gives me the opportunity to use my native language."

Megan Mahoney, a second-semester student from Abingdon, Mass., joined the Arabic class this semester. "I took Arabic in high school and liked it," she says. "It may turn out to be my major."

For Mary Bowen, an eighth-semester student from Meriden, Arabic is an extension of her interest in linguistics, her major at UConn. "I have studied a lot of romance languages and wanted something that was not in that family," she says. "I'm interested in learning languages. When I want to take a fun class, that's what I take. This class is challenging because even the roots are different from other languages I've studied: there are no cognates in

Ken Ross