The University Record, February 11, 1998

Mellon grant funds low-enrollment languages

This is the Stela of Shemsu, made by his sister Ny, limestone, Egypt, Middle Kingdom (1991-1783 BCE) from the Kelsey Museum collections. Middle Egyptian is one of the less commonly taught languages that will incorporate the use of technology to make it more widely available with the support of a $950,000 Mellon Foundation Grant.

This stela represents the man Shemsu, described as a royal official, seated before an offering table, smelling a lotus. Such an object shows that a woman could command the resources and authority necessary to commission such an object for a male relative, while being able to commemorate herself in the process. Photo courtesy Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

By Jane R. Elgass

A project that draws on the expertise of faculty teaching unusual languages at four universities and builds a foundation on students' comfortable relationship with computers has received a $950,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Work on the teaching of Hindi and Middle Egyptian will be carried out by faculty here and at the University of Chicago, while work on Swahili will be undertaken by faculty at the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University. Each institution has at least one faculty member with special expertise in the respective languages.

The project will be administered by Stuart Y. McDougal, assistant to the LS&A dean and professor of English and of comparative literature, who collaborated with the other faculty in developing the proposal.

LS&A Dean Edie N. Goldenberg notes that the grant "is important to us and to higher education in general. It allows us to join in cooperative ventures with other leading universities to sustain and improve our offerings in languages that attract only small enrollments at any one institution. Rather than see each university eliminate the same set of languages for financial reasons, we are striving to join together to ensure that these languages are taught, to find ways to teach them even more effectively than in the past, and to broaden the language offerings available to our students beyond what we could provide by ourselves.

"This is the sort of creative venture that the Mellon Foundation has so generously supported," Goldenberg adds, "one that brings together four universities to prepare a joint proposal. Stuart McDougal has served ably as an instigator, facilitator and now principal investigator on this project."

Students who undertake study of an unusual language, whether for scholarly or personal reasons, often are at a disadvantage, McDougal notes. They frequently have the same instructor for all classes and because of the limited availability of faculty may not be able to proceed much beyond introductory courses. In addition, there often are few materials to support the teaching of less common languages.

"Through this grant, we hope to develop ways of teaching these languages more effectively, more efficiently and more engagingly," he says.

In the early phases of the project, the collaborating faculty will develop materials that will enable students to spend part of their class time on the computer doing routine activities such as drills. "This should make it possible to have smaller classes and free up class time for more productive exchanges," McDougal notes. The use of technology also might make it possible for faculty members to teach other courses in literature, culture or history.

Ultimately, the universities will experiment with distance learning, with a second- or third-year course offered on one campus but open to students at both participating schools, reaching a larger population and at course levels not possible in the past.

While the Mellon grant will fund work with unusual, low-enrollment courses, McDougal hopes that "we'll learn things over the long term that will have an impact on high-enrollment languages."

Some work in transferring basic drills to computer already has been done at Northwestern University, where introductory work in French is on the Worldwide Web. This, McDougal says, has resulted in smaller classes, which make for a better learning environment, and has enabled the faculty to see how much time students spend on the Web and to see what kinds of exercises they find difficult. They then can modify their teaching to address any problems, he notes.

Terry G. Wilfong, assistant curator, Kelsey Museum, and assistant professor of Egyptology, will be joining Janet Richards, Kelsey assistant curator and visiting assistant professor of Egyptology, and Janet Johnson from Chicago in preparing a course of study of Middle Egyptian using computers and other forms of technology.

About 12 students were enrolled in Middle Egyptian last year, most of them undergraduates.

One of the biggest hurdles facing Wilfong and his colleagues is the dearth of materials on Middle Egyptian, which exists in hieroglyphic form only. "There is only one full textbook in English, originally written in the 1920s, but it is not suitable for teaching today's students," he says. "It was written for upper-class British men who had studied Greek."

Wilfong's and Richards's task will be to develop an interactive reader that incorporates work in a variety of areas, including literary works, stories, letters and religious writings. The material will include a great deal of background cultural information, so students can see the place the text had in the culture.

"In Middle Egyptian, the text should also be seen as an artifact," Wilfong explains. "It's important to see when it was written and on what it was written. That's all part of understanding the language."

Hindi, which is the most important language in northern India, has about as many speakers worldwide at Spanish and English, and there is a "fair demand" for it at the U-M.

About 50 or 60 students sign up for the first-year course in the fall, but only about one-half that number continue with second-year courses, according to Peter E. Hook, who will spearhead the U-M's efforts to incorporate technology into the teaching of Hindi.

The demand for Hindi at the U-M "is mainly driven by issues of solidarity and identity," explains Hook, who is professor of Indo-Aryan languages and of linguistics. "Most of those studying it are children of individuals who immigrated here."

Hook will be joined by Tahsin Siddiqi, U-M lecturer in Asian languages and cultures, and Mithilesh Mishra at the University of Chicago. An already-planned trip to India this coming summer by Hook now is being expanded so he can begin gathering materials for the courses.

"I will start commissioning things better left to people who are native speakers and are also trained linguists and have training in writing," he says. "We want to have the materials as natural as possible, and they have to have a certain level of difficulty built into them.

"Teaching language is a complex matter," Hook notes. "You want it as natural as possible, but you must include pedagogical aims. You can't always find appropriate source material in books or newspapers."

He also will check on the availability of films with accompanying filmscripts, to incorporate clips of the films in class work.

Hook and his colleagues are quick to point out that they don't see technology taking the place of faculty in the classroom.

"I see this as another tool, one tool among many," he states. "The classroom experience is the central part of teaching a foreign language. That would persist. But this may mean that you'll have three or four hours of classroom instruction instead of four or five."

He also notes that creation of the course materials will have an impact beyond the U-M. "There is a certain amount of demand in colleges and universities where it's not possible to have a sequence of courses in Hindi, but you still have several students each year. [This project] is a way of accommodating that demand. The University can use it as an outreach to other schools."

Faculty here and at the other schools will be able to draw on the expertise of a U-M faculty member with long experience in incorporating technology into language teaching.

Edna A. Coffin, professor of modern Hebrew language and literature and the developer of Foreign Language Applications in the Multimedia Environment (FLAME), pioneered this approach here beginning in 1990 to help her students and others.

Her expertise and interest lie in languages that have very little in common with English and in which there are great cultural differences among speakers of those languages and speakers of English, making her a valuable resource for the faculty teams.

Mellon technology initiative goals

The Mellon funding is a result of the Foundation's initiative on "The Cost Effective Use of Technology in Teaching," which seeks to:


Discover ways to use technology in traditional university settings that can reduce costs while maintaining or increasing educational quality.


Use human resources more effectively.


Cover more materials in basic courses.


Share scarce, specialized talents among several campuses.


Reduce the number of graduate assistants required to teach basic materials.


Save some faculty time for redeployment.

Gilbert R. Whitaker Jr., former dean and provost, is a senior adviser to the Foundation for this project. Whitaker now is dean of the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Administration at Rice University.