ASU study abroad programs adapt to bring experiences to students virtually

By

Emily Balli

It’s well believed that one of the best ways to learn a new language is to be immersed in a country alongside native speakers. This idea is the cornerstone of Arizona State University’s Critical Language Institute programs. But in a time of travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders, rather than sending students abroad, the institute has found creative solutions to virtually connect students with native speakers around the world.

This summer, all 12 language programs offered by the Critical Languages Institute are shifting to an online format, with many native-speaking instructors providing synchronous instruction based around U.S. time zones from their home institutions.

These languages, that are often less commonly taught, include Albanian, Armenian, Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian, Hebrew, Indonesian, Macedonian, Persian, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Uzbek.

"At this year's Critical Language Institute orientation, I told our incoming students that they are both the 30th cohort and our very first online cohort,” said Irina Levin, director of the Critical Languages Institute. “It is the combination of well-loved traditions — the long-standing relationships we build with our students and faculty and our commitment to flexible adaptation and innovation — that makes the Critical Language Institute so special." 

Some ways the Critical Language Institute has adapted its programs include virtual homestay visits, where students will join a family for their evening meal and virtual conversation partners, with whom students will practice the language and get to know the country from a local’s perspective. In addition, online cooking, crafting and martial arts or dance classes have been added to the curriculum. Faculty will also lead guided virtual excursions to local museums and significant historical sites. 

“This may not be the same as the on-the-ground experience our study abroad programs have always provided, but students will be digitally immersed in the cultures and amply prepared, both in terms of their language abilities and their knowledge of culture, to study, live or even work in these places in the future,” Levin said.

Nearly 200 students in Arizona and around the world will participate in Critical Languages Institute summer programs this year, including nine students who were working abroad as Peace Corps volunteers. With scholarship support from the Melikian Center: Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies Advisory Board, these nine students are able to take introductory Macedonian, Albanian and Ukrainian courses as they wait to resume or begin their service overseas.

For 18 years, Linda Mëniku has taught the Albanian language at ASU’s Tempe campus as well as abroad in Albania. This year, she will teach fully online from her home in Albania, where there is a nine-hour time difference from Arizona. She said she feels this new online experience will create more flexibility for students by bringing the language to them.

“I believe that language acquisition in the classroom is best fostered if the atmosphere is nurturing yet challenging and motivating. This summer I will keep the same class format for the online format, but will try to make changes along the way, based on students' needs and suggestions,” Mëniku said. “I believe that the online Albanian course will bring the Albanian language and culture to the students’ homes and offer them more flexibility.”

Gohar Harutyunyan has taught the Armenian language at ASU in Tempe and abroad since 2007. As she teaches online from Armenia this summer, she said she will embrace the challenge and looks forward to the opportunity to teach the language and culture in a new way.

“Communities around the world have been adjusting to the difficult realities with the coronavirus,” Harutyunyan said. “I stay optimistic about online learning and will do my best to guide my students along a beautiful journey through the language and culture of the Armenian people. Though it might be challenging, at the same time, it will be interesting and add greatly to our skills. It will help us to acknowledge the fact that nothing in the world can prevent both educators and students from enjoying the teaching-learning dynamic process.”