MSU receives $2.5M for less commonly taught languages

Michigan State University was awarded a four-year, $2.5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support further development in the research and teaching of less commonly taught languages, with an emphasis on Indigenous languages.

This is the second Mellon grant received by the LCTL Partnership, led by the Center for Language Teaching Advancement at Michigan State University, to facilitate the teaching of less commonly taught languages at all Big 10 universities in partnership with the Big Ten Academic Alliance.

This multi-university initiative seeks to transform the way LCTLs are taught by leveraging cutting-edge research and advances in instructional technology with the aim of creating sustainable and effective models of instruction.

“This grant allows us to provide more students with higher levels of proficiency in languages that are less commonly taught and more difficult to sustain,” said Christopher P. Long, dean of the College of Arts and Letters and principal investigator on the grant. “This is important because a higher level of language proficiency deepens our understanding of the cultures to which these languages give voice.”

Currently, MSU offers instruction in 29 less commonly taught languages, such as Vietnamese, Turkish and Indonesian. Often the challenge in teaching these languages is having only one or two students at any given university taking a course, and in order to have a full class and higher levels of competency, a critical mass of students is needed across multiple semesters.

This issue is resolved by sharing courses across the Big Ten Academic Alliance through the CourseShare program, which enables students to take a variety of different languages online that are not sustainably teachable at individual institutions.

The first Mellon grant laid the foundation for the project. The research team is now taking the successes of that first grant and expanding it over the next four years.

“With this second cycle of the grant, we are focusing on ways to ensure sustainability of the successes that the grant has fostered,” said Sonja Fritzsche, associate dean of personnel and administration in the College of Arts and Letters and co-PI on the project. “We are working with our BTAA partners to create institutional structures that will continue the collaborative partnerships among instructors and administrators across universities so that course offerings will be stable and innovative joint curriculum development can continue.”

The United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and a major focus of this grant is to promote Indigenous languages through collaborative research and curricular work and to develop an exploratory model for these languages, which are endangered.

With this next grant cycle, the project will expand to one Indigenous language, Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe), which is an Indigenous language spoken in the Michigan area and Great Lakes region. The LCTL Partnership will develop an Anishinaabemowin program that will serve the needs of Michigan’s Indigenous nations as well as establish a model for other Indigenous language instruction that is rooted within Indigenous communities and aligned with Indigenous knowledge systems.

“For hundreds of years, generations of Indigenous people in communities throughout the Great Lakes have fought for the preservation of Anishinaabemowin,” said Gordon Henry, professor of English and co-PI on the project who is affiliated with the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program at MSU and an enrolled member of the White Earth Chippewa Tribe of Minnesota. “It’s important for people in knowing their culture to try to live their language, to have it as a living way of communicating in a community, and that’s what a lot of tribes are trying to have happen again.”

Henry, who is connected with the tribal communities in Michigan, is leading the efforts to establish these relationships and nurture the infrastructure needed to recruit, retain and graduate Indigenous students at MSU.

The LCTL Partnership also will use the Mellon funding to continue to develop additional courses in Hebrew and one other LCTL, which will be determined in the coming year, and to promote already-developed materials in Swahili and Hindi.

“This grant allows us to be much more coordinated in our offerings to identify where the strengths are across the Big Ten Academic Alliance so that we can make the best use of the resources we have,” Long said. “It allows us to think more holistically about how to offer more courses and more languages at higher levels of proficiency.”

This story was edited and appears in its entirety on the College of Arts and Letters website.

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