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African languages course highlights challenges and successes of independent language learning

Students play a game to learn greetings in the Luganda language

Students play a game to learn greetings in the Luganda language

Monday, March 9, 2015

Imagine learning an entire language independently, with no textbooks or traditional classroom experience. Sound difficult? Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been attempting this feat by taking a pair of independent-learning courses in the Department of African Languages and Literature over the past two semesters under the supervision of Professor Katrina Daly Thompson.

The courses, African 670 and 697, are a two-semester long sequence that allows students to learn how to teach themselves a language outside of a regular classroom setting, according to Thompson. This semester, two graduate students and one undergraduate student are learning Yoruba, Swahili and Luganda. The students meet with each other and Thompson once a week to discuss their language learning accomplishments, as well as they spend eight to ten hours each week studying on their own.

Thompson, who previously taught at The University of California-Los Angeles for eight years, was inspired by a course she taught there called Experiential Seminar in Second Language Learning. The UCLA course was created for applied linguistics students to learn about theories and methods of language learning while practicing them by teaching themselves a less-commonly taught language (LCTL). On the other hand, Thompson’s course at UW-Madison, while drawing on the same theories, is more practical than theoretical. The course emphasizes learning the language because her students need the languages for their individual research.

For example, second-year MA student Lindsay Ehrisman’s graduate work focuses on the history of Uganda and much of her work comes from Luganda language sources.   

“Learning Luganda is not only important for understanding the culture and its past, but also for respecting local customs, establishing friendships, and feeling connected to a place where I will spend much of my life visiting and working,” says Ehrisman.

Moreover, the course varies from other African Language courses because students are in charge of their own learning. Additionally, students create their own syllabi, find language learning materials and decide upon their own end-goals.

For one, as a professor, Thompson acts as a mentor to the students. “It is Professor Thompson’s role to introduce a variety of learning, goal-setting, time management, monitoring and assessing strategies,” says Ehrisman. “She has helped us discover our own unique learning styles.”

As for deciding their end-goals, it is up to the students to figure out how they are going to be assessed, according to Thompson. For example, Ehrisman focuses more on reading and writing, so she tests herself more on those skills. Whereas, another student, Emma Hornsby, tested her conversational practices by having an hour-long conversation with one of UW’s Swahili Teaching Assistants.

Thompson did not want to have any kind of test that is required by all students. “I wanted to create the course in a way that it would work for any student,” she says.

Moreover this class is different than traditional language learning because textbooks are usually not available to learn languages like Luganda. Students must find authentic materials such as grammars, short story collections written for native speakers or even children’s books.

“They are really using authentic materials, like finding YouTube videos, movies, music, even cooking shows,” says Thompson. “They are just getting really creative with how they are doing it.”

Additionally, all of the students currently in her class have access to a native speaker who they can practice their language with in conversation.

“I try to make a clear distinction that that person is not meant to be a tutor, but just a conversation partner,” says Thompson.

However, learning a language independently can come with challenges.

“It was difficult at first to be solely in charge of my language learning and outcomes,” says Hornsby.

Thompson agrees that it can be difficult to schedule time to practice the language. However, she encourages them to create journals to keep track of their progress and make their goals.

Although learning a language independently can be challenging, students have found ways to be successful. Ehrisman says, “The idea of teaching myself a language was so daunting at first, but with Professor Thompson’s guidance, I now feel confident that I can teach myself any language I may want to learn in the future.”

Hornsby adds, “The class has given me the flexibility to study Swahili in the way I see fit and most applicable to my broader research goals and interests.”

Additionally, the flexibility of the course allows students to move at a faster or slower pace. “If I master a topic quickly or struggle with a learning topic and need to spend more time learning it, I can do that because I am not on anyone else’s schedule,” says Ehrisman.

Thompson believes this course is great for students who want to learn a language that is not offered at UW-Madison, especially since the study of languages and African languages is important.

“Africa is one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world,” says Thompson. “Learning African Languages gives students access to African cultures that can’t really be accomplished through other languages like former colonial languages.

When asked if Thompson would expand the course to other less commonly-taught languages other than African, she said it would be great to have more students.

“I’ve already gotten a few inquiries about new year, actually incoming grad students or applicants,” Thompson says. 

Story by Nichole Francois, Language Institute

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