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One year ago, Pablo Requena started a new internship for his Spanish students at the University of Montana.

Once a week, UM students headed to Paxson Elementary to help children practice Spanish after school and learn new vocabulary as part of the school's dual language program.

UM students raved about the "service program," an opportunity to use Spanish in the real world, said Requena, assistant professor in the department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures.

Last semester, Requena led a different experience at UM, a study abroad tour and longstanding tradition in the department. He took nine students to his native Argentina in a program that placed each with a host family and steeped them in daily life.

They drank mate tea, navigated public transportation, saw the tango and Igacu Falls.

"It was a fantastic experience," Requena said. "It was a lot of work, but I would definitely do it again. I would have loved to do that as a student of English myself."

Across the country, enrollment in foreign languages has generally fallen. From fall 2013 to fall 2016, enrollment in languages other than English dropped 9.2 percent in the United States, according to a 2018 report from the Modern Language Association. Since 1960, the ratio of students out of 100 who are enrolled in foreign languages dropped in half.

The downturn happens even as more fields require global fluency, such as business, health care, journalism and conservation.

At UM, enrollment has fallen in general and in languages in particular. To reset its budget and academic priorities, a draft proposal recommends reducing faculty in Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures by more than one-third over the next three years — even as the administration stresses the importance of an education that creates global learners.

Part of UM's updated mission statement illustrates that point: "The University of Montana’s mission is to provide a high-quality and accessible education at a world-class research university. We shape global citizens who are creative and agile learners prepared to build and sustain communities."

Faculty in Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures started talking a while ago about how to teach in new ways, and in earnest at least a year ago, in part as a response to earlier projected enrollment declines and budget constraints.

Fueled by recent and preliminary recommendations, Requena said instructors accelerated their dialogue and are pushing an evolution in teaching languages and cultures at UM. The flagship isn't starting from scratch because so many things already are working well, he said, such as UM's study abroad program.

"What are our strengths? And how can we just skyrocket, let's say? How can we go to the top using that (immersion) and a number of new things," Requena said.

***

This year, UM President Seth Bodnar released a "Strategy for Distinction" that laid out a plan for the future of the flagship, one driven in part by the need for financial stability.

Draft recommendations call for faculty cuts, including ones in Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures of 7.5 full time equivalents out of 17.25 over the course of three years.

The recommendation is not set in stone, though, and it also comes with a challenge.

In the proposal, Bodnar called on the UM community to "re-imagine how to deliver language education more effectively through a combination of in-person, immersion, and online experiences." He also said UM should work with its partners to develop new models.

UM already has deep ties to Asia through the Mansfield Center, and faculty and administrators have fostered relationships with researchers and institutions around the world.

Through a grant and partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and the Japan Foundation, the campus sends students to Japan to learn about business, culture and policy. Faculty in conservation lead trips to Zambia and Botswana. Spanish students can spend a semester in Spain or Argentina.

"What UM offers is the ability to combine language study with a much broader area of study," said Brian Dowdle, an assistant professor in Japanese. "So you can do language and business. You can do language and forestry. You can do language and history and the humanities."

Sophie Hewey, who traveled with Requena last semester and is majoring in Spanish and sociology, said she would not have attended UM if it didn't offer Spanish. She grew up in Livingston and had traveled abroad, but she had never lived in a big city until her semester in Cordoba, Argentina, with a population of nearly 1.4 million.

"Obviously, Spanish is not the only thing I'm devoted to learning, but it almost enhances my study of sociology and my understanding of it, and vice versa," Hewey said.

Chris Comer, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said many UM students seek two majors, including a foreign language. An experience overseas is transformative, pedagogically sound, and a priority for interested students, he said, regardless of major. UM has some 200 students with a language major.

"If I got a million dollars from some donor tomorrow, I would make sure every student who wanted to had the chance to spend a semester in another country," Comer said. "I just think it's really important."

***

Kelly Webster, chief of staff for President Bodnar, said UM believes strongly in the importance of teaching languages and doing so through the lens of culture. To meet the call for reinvention, she said the campus is looking at creative ideas from its own language program and ones from its partners.

"We are using this summer to learn from some of our successful delivery models in areas like our MCLL (Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures) program, in our Defense Critical Language and Culture Program, and in the Mansfield Center," Webster said in an email.

In the department, faculty are trying new ideas, but budget isn't the only driver. Requena said the energy to adapt comes also in response to meeting the needs of students — ones who might be less inclined to get a doctorate in Spanish literature but more interested in using the language in health care or business.

So faculty are talking about launching courses that would support, say, the specific needs of health care professionals who may work with Spanish-speaking populations in the future. Or business managers who need to negotiate in Spanish.

Dowdle, who teaches Japanese, said in his program, instruction used to follow a "train car" model, where students would progress from one course to the next. It meant some of the classes were small, which the administration didn't like, and it meant students might have to wait for their "car" to show up.

To give students more flexibility and increase class sizes, he said faculty scrapped the "train car" for a "sunflower." With the sunflower model, students progress up the stem for the basics, but afterward, in the center of the flower, they can move to the courses they need with flexibility.

The approach combines third- and fourth-year students in some classes, and Dowdle says the mix allows more experienced students to be role models without detracting from the rigor of instruction. The curriculum illustrates the way UM links language and culture; it offers Japanese film and anime classes and even a course last semester on the geography of the country. 

"As a department, we're not willing to do any curricular changes that aren't going to help the students," Dowdle said.

Teachers also are incorporating technology. Associate professor Ona Renner-Fahey spent time this year creating materials for a "blended" Russian course she will teach in the fall with a mix of classroom instruction and online learning. 

Somewhat skeptical of online teaching, Renner-Fahey said she started preparing for the "blended" course eight months in advance to be sure it's creative and engaging for students. She's doing it in part to stay abreast of higher education trends.

"I think it's important to challenge oneself, revise and expand course offerings and methodologies, think outside the box," Renner-Fahey said.

***

As it evaluates language and culture education, UM is looking to its partners, as well.

Established in 1983, the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center has long fostered a cultural exchange between the United States and Asia. It has a relationship with Tohoku University, "the Stanford of Japan," said director Abraham Kim. The UM theater recently took the play "To Kill A Mockingbird" to China in a cultural exchange around theater arts.

The Mansfield Center also is home of the Defense Critical Language and Culture Program, which teaches foreign languages to Special Forces via video technology. Director and Maj. Gen. Don Loranger said the center conducts 100,000 training hours a year with a focus on culture.

A partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense, the program in Missoula is the largest such center in the United States, and it demonstrates significantly higher achievement in language proficiency than its peers; data Loranger provided shows soldiers through the UM center outpace others by as much as nearly double and generally score 38 percent higher than the DOD standard.

Every day, faculty based in Missoula teach six- to eight-hour courses to two to seven students on military bases. Shaima Khinjani, manager of academic programs, said the UM center was the first to teach culture as part of language, a component now mandated by the Department of Defense.

Abdellatif Oulhaj, who teaches Levantine Arabic, said the focus isn't on preparing for tests, but on using language for the real world. In class last week, he prompted his advanced students to discuss the coming legalization of marijuana in Canada, news that had only been announced a day earlier.

Students learn not only grammar, but how to express an idea the way a native speaker would, Oulhaj said. And they also learn idioms not found in textbooks. In Morocco, for instance, and across the Arab world, a child will call her father "dad," or "baba," but her father will call her "baba" too. Oulhaj said it may seem odd at first, but it's similar to the way cousins refer to each other in the U.S.

Byeong-Keun You, who teaches Korean, said trust between students and faculty is key, and through the video technology, he can still see his students' eyes, and they can know his heart. In rooms at the center, faculty teach in front of two large video screens, one showing the students and one a shared instruction board.

You said his students have a background in military service, and they may look like tough guys with tattoos. "But from my eyes, so cute, right?"

***

Just how revamping teaching might pencil out to save money for Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures isn't clear yet. And some faculty also find their plans blocked by unexpected logistics, as when Renner-Fahey wanted to offer a course that had filled her classroom but created a challenge for the registrar.

"You think you have a good idea and something like room scheduling gets in the way," Renner-Fahey said.

Some changes do free up faculty time, though, and therefore resources. And Dean Comer said the college is raising money for special projects including for students to be able to continue to study overseas, with fundraising details to be announced this fall.

Generally, though, UM has all the best pieces for teaching language and culture at its fingertips, and it's working to put them together, said chief of staff Webster. And she said the administration is working with the campus community to address the immediate challenge to ensure financial stability while at the same time to position UM for the future.

"We’re collectively seeking to solve for this challenge," Webster said. "We want to use this moment to build a platform that not only allows us to offer students all over the region to access an excellent education in language and culture, but also that allows us to grow."

It's a tall order.

Requena said more change may be required of the department, but he smiled and crossed his fingers.

"We are ready to adjust to them. Meanwhile, we have these great ideas. We have students that love them. So we want to introduce them into the curriculum."

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.