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December 7, 2006

   

BMC Wins Major Federal Grant to Expand
Advanced Study of Eurasian Languages

Davidson

Under the auspices of the federal government's National Security Education Program, the Bryn Mawr Program in Russian and Second Language Acquisition (SLA) will serve as lead institution in a consortium of colleges and universities in the expansion of the National Flagship Language Program in Russian, part of a new federal initiative to strengthen the teaching of languages and world cultures in the United States. Professor Dan Davidson serves as project director, working with colleagues in language and SLA at Bryn Mawr, the University of Maryland/College Park, Middlebury College, UCLA, and the American Council of Teachers of Russian in Washington. International partners in the project include St. Petersburg University (Russia) and, beginning in 2007, the Persian and Tajik faculties at Tajik National University in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The current stateside Russian consortium and the overseas Russian and Persian programs are funded by an annual grant of about $860,000 for the 2006-07 academic year.

"Advanced language and cultural competencies are essential for gaining the strategic perspective and deep understanding of global and cross-cultural communities necessary for living and working in the global economy. This is what is meant by national security in the broadest sense," Davidson says. "If we only know and understand a single cultural perspective, our ability to interact globally is impaired, whether that be the ability to research markets, engage in scholarly exchange, cope with public health crises, or resolve international conflicts.

The overseas component of Bryn Mawr's NFLP in Russian has been operating since the fall of 2004 at the University of St. Petersburg in Russia, with a curriculum researched and designed by Davidson and other Bryn Mawr experts in second-language acquisition. It entails a year of fully funded study for eligible advanced students of Russian, with training tailored to the specific needs of their chosen professions. They emerge from the program with the ability to engage in all the complexities of professional discourse in Russian — to present a paper at a professional conference, chair a panel, negotiate an agreement, or uphold a position in a foreign media broadcast, Davidson offers as some typical examples — some, admittedly, stressful situations.

The new, stateside expansion of the program, now being implemented at Bryn Mawr, Middlebury College, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Maryland, College Park, is intended to be a "feeder" program for the postgraduate St. Petersburg program, Davidson noted. The consortium also includes the American Council of Teachers of Russian, of which Davidson is the president; ACTR administers the overseas Flagship Programs and has cooperated with Bryn Mawr in study-abroad programs for decades. Flagship Consortium members are widely viewed as some of the most successful programs in the nation at developing Russian-language skills in their students. While all members of the consortium are well known in the U. S. for the strength of their programs, Bryn Mawr is the only one of the group that offers the Ph.D. in Russian and SLA, a strength noted by the funder in awarding the Flagship grant to Bryn Mawr.

The domestic Flagship program is especially aimed at advanced students who have returned from immersion programs abroad, Davidson says. "We discovered that students who returned from a summer or a semester in Russia tended not to develop their language proficiency any further," he explains. "Just maintaining the skill level they reach is a challenge; sometimes their skills actually decline. Our goal is to reverse that trend."

The curricula now being piloted at Bryn Mawr and other consortium institutions includes intensive small-group classes, frequent individual tutoring sessions, lectures and discussion of Russian culture, and directed study according to each students' individual interests. Students are tested regularly for proficiency and language growth, and results of the testing are shared among member institutions.

The Flagship Consortium hopes to double the annual applicant pool for the Russian Flagship Program in St. Petersburg. The rigorously tested curricular models developed through the program will also be disseminated nationwide, with the goal of raising the general level of Russian instruction throughout the United States.

Meanwhile, the early success of the NSEP's flagship programs in Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Korean is leading the way to the development of similar programs in other languages. Bryn Mawr and the American Councils for International Education, of which the ACTR is a division, have a longstanding administrative structure for recruiting and training students for study abroad in Eurasian languages. The NSEP is now taking advantage of that structure to develop flagship programs in these languages — including Russian as well as the Turkic languages of Central Asia and Tajik, which is part of the Persian family of languages. Most of the adult populations of the former Soviet states are bilingual in Russian and the local language of the region.

Program and infrastructure development are underway for the newest of these programs, a National Flagship Program in Persian to be conducted at the newly established Center for Eastern Languages Center at Tajik National University in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, which provides an immersion setting in an area that is increasingly critical to U.S. interests.

Tajik, Davidson explains, is one of three principle forms of Persian, "and although Tajik is distinguished by its use of Cyrillic script, communication is mutually intelligible between Iranians, Tajiks and Persian-speaking Afghans. Modern-day Tajikistan was part of the Persian Empire for most of its 4,000-year history, until Russia began to extend its influence across Central Asia in the mid-19th century. Today, the literature, language and culture of ancient Persia remain a central component of Tajik higher education."

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