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Language program opens professional doors, boosts job prospects for students

When Junko Mori flies to Japan, she is constantly surprised by the stories of those around her. The fast pace of business reminds her of the vital role her department plays in preparing students for life after college.

“The reality of today’s business world, or any professional world, is that you can’t just specialize in China or Japan,” says Mori, professor of Japanese linguistics and department chair for East Asian Languages and Literature. “Production might be in China, using technology invented in Taiwan, but have a branch in Japan. A businessperson travels to all these countries in one trip.”

Mori and her colleagues are some of the many faculty and staff members creating programs for the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates.

The Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, approved in May 2009, involves a supplemental tuition charge to be phased in during the next four years to improve the quality and long-term value of undergraduate education while also providing funds for need-based aid.

Among other goals, the initiative aims to provide students with easier access to courses and majors, more opportunity for faculty and adviser contact and innovation in learning methods. Through this increased support, students will be better prepared to pursue a wide range of careers in a changing world.

For East Asian Languages and Literature, the funding they receive will establish a new undergraduate certificate in professional communication in East Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese and eventually Korean).

It will offer four classes in conversation and business communication on a more regular basis, three of which have not been offered in more than 10  years. Finally, it will address student needs by redesigning existing courses and reducing lower-level class sizes.

In each case, the department will improve student access to skills crucial in shaping global competencies – particularly for those students in other fields who might not otherwise be able to pursue a major.

Courses in East Asian languages are especially crucial in business and technology fields. According to the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, China and Japan are ranked third and fifth, respectively, as destinations for Wisconsin exports. Enrollment in Chinese courses has nearly doubled since the fall of 2000, reflecting a high level of community demand.

Many students wrote in support of the proposal, citing the need for formal recognition of study that a certificate would provide.

“Engineering and manufacturing have strong ties to East Asia,” wrote James Trauba, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, “but it is nearly impossible to major in a language while majoring in engineering.”

Sophomore Melinda Sarnicki concurred. A double major in Japanese and political science, she hopes that the students who come after her will benefit from these changes.

“Due to large class sizes, it seems as though many students’ speaking skills are not as strong as their reading and writing skills,” Sarnicki writes. “Madison has a very strong East Asian Languages department, and I am positive that these additions would further enhance the reputation and strength of the program.”

The seed for this idea came several years ago, when Mori received an internal grant to develop a business Japanese course. With the prospect of an additional lecturer, the time seemed right to introduce the certificate. But just as the department received funding, the economy fell into a tailspin.

“The budget situation became gloomy,” Mori recalls. “We couldn’t continue to cover both undergraduate and graduate courses with existing faculty, but we were always thinking that it would be really nice to have one extra staff member.”

When the chancellor called for MIU proposals, Mori and her colleagues put together a brief proposal with their core ideas.  Though the proposal was not originally selected for funding, members of the selection committee encouraged the department to reapply after addressing certain concerns. With only a few weeks to revamp their proposal, Mori and her colleagues put in long hours to hone their requests.

One way this project will address student needs is by creating a separate track for heritage language learners. A Korean-American student born in the United States, for example, might speak the language fluently with family at home, but have weaker reading skills and command of formal conventions. A student from Hong Kong, used to speaking Cantonese, might find Mandarin characters familiar but its sounds quite different. In both cases, faculty may find it difficult to place these students at an appropriate level.

Addressing this discrepancy benefits both heritage and non-heritage learners. Heritage learners can focus primarily on the areas needing work while relying on existing skills. Non-heritage learners can learn without being intimidated by students with a much stronger grasp of the language. Both groups can receive instruction more closely targeted to their needs.

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