Bilingual BYU

a man dives from a high platform into an ocean made of Arabic calligraphy
Illustration by Guy Billout

by Amanda Kae Fronk

“The BYU College of Humanities teaches more languages at an advanced level than any other university in America,” wrote then dean John R. Rosenberg in 2006. A decade later BYU has increased its language strength, offering classes in more than 60 languages, with enrollments equal to two-thirds of the student population. It is no secret that BYU’s burgeoning population of returned missionaries plays a large role in this diverse and challenging language universe. “[Some returned missionaries] have a general language ability that is on par with language majors graduating from other colleges and universities,” says Ray T. Clifford, director of BYU’s Center for Language Studies. These skilled freshman and sophomore students have spurred professors to be innovative in developing language certification for student transcripts and creating advanced-level coursework that will push students to higher levels of proficiency.

A Language Center for BYU and the Nation

Founded in 1999 and located in the College of Humanities, the Center for Language Studies drives research on improving proficiency and administering and validating exams. Clifford directs the center and brings with him a wealth of experience, such as serving as president for a handful of national language organizations, including two terms over the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL)—aka, the group that administers standardized language tests. His career researching the reliability and validity of tests has played a key role in making BYU’s language programs so robust. “Ray is a high-energy leader with a penchant for innovation that inspires us all,” says J. Scott Miller, current dean of the college.

The center and its research have captured the attention of some of the nation’s top language publications and organizations. The discipline’s most prestigious journal, Foreign Language Annals, consistently publishes work from BYU faculty. Noting the “careful, sustained, and thoughtful series of articles” of BYU language researchers, the journal’s editor, Anne Grundstrom Nerenz, says that the BYU team is one of the most productive and influential in the country.

ACTFL has looked to BYU to answer its own set of problems. The association has used research-validated oral and writing tests for many years but has not had tests for listening and writing, and it has recently contracted BYU to develop listening and reading tests, using computer-adaptive algorithms, to add to the ACTFL battery of foreign-language examinations. That means BYU will create the standardized foreign-language listening and reading tests that will be used in the United States and other countries.

Even the U.S. government wants in on BYU’s research for its own language-training facilities. “The government has been trying to validate their proficiency testing procedures for half a century,” says Clifford, so they turned to BYU for help.

BYU’s connection with government organizations is nothing new. The government has long recruited BYU alums as Foreign Service officers. Though numbers are not tracked, Clifford remembers one interaction with a visiting ambassador to BYU: “I asked, ‘What percentage of the Foreign Service officers are BYU graduates?’ And she said, ‘We don’t track that data. I have no way of knowing, but I do know I have never been in a U.S. embassy where there wasn’t a BYU graduate.’ ”

Indeed, the College of Humanities has become an exemplar for other institutions looking to advance their own programs. In the early 2000s, a presidentially mandated review of U.S. foreign language capabilities noted, “One heartening exception to this national norm of mediocrity is Brigham Young University.”

Certified Language Aces

A commonly held belief is that missionaries return home highly fluent in their mission language. “Those perceptions [are] often held by the missionaries themselves,” Clifford says with a smile. While their language skills—conversational abilities in particular—may be higher than most American college students, testing has found that missionaries are not nearly as fluent as they might think. ACTFL ranks language proficiency—or aptitude in speaking, writing, hearing, or reading language—into five categories, from novice (for those dependent upon memorized vocabulary) to distinguished (which takes an average of 17 years in country to achieve). The three middle categories, from least to most proficient, are intermediate, advanced, and superior. Most returned missionaries test at an advanced level, leaving plenty of room for more development. Professional careers in interpreting, translating, and government work require a superior rating.

While some returned missionaries will earn a degree in a language, most will major in another field, but their language skills—whether advanced or superior—are still an asset for them professionally. That is why the Center for Language Studies developed the BYU Language Certificate, which endorses students’ skills. The center has given out more than 1,400 certificates in 11 languages since it began the program in 2010. “The Language Certificate Program at BYU is the only competency-based certificate program offered at universities in the United States. Others may give certificates, but they’re based on class attendance,” said Clifford at a ceremony in March 2015 celebrating the 1,000th certificate awarded.

To receive the certificate, students must complete three courses—one each in culture, language, and literature. They must then receive an advanced or higher rating on either the ACTFL oral or writing test. With certificate in hand to verify measured ability, students have a leg up on competition when it comes to entering the workforce.

Language Immersion in Provo, USA

The Center for Language Studies has also encouraged and assisted professors to be creative in developing curricula for students who desire higher language proficiency. Although novice- and intermediate-level educational materials abound, “once you get to the advanced level,” says Russian professor Tony Brown, “there’s really not a lot as far as pedagogical tools. Part of the reason for that is that once you hit those higher proficiency levels, language becomes increasingly slippery.” That is, language proficiency will no longer increase simply by using language workbook exercises. Rather, higher-level language skills require more immersive contexts in which one can learn and practice cohesive and nuanced speech.

Brown has developed coursework that helps students bridge the gap from sentence-length utterances to paragraph-length reflections. Teaming up with students in Moscow via distance-learning technology, BYU students debate the finer points of meaty topics such as immigration, freedom versus security, and redistribution of wealth versus self-reliance. The debate rules provide scaffolding for students to practice articulating in-depth opinions. “We’re not creating some sort of artificial structure,” says Brown. “[Debate is] a natural, contextualized structure for the language.”

Brown’s Skyping debate team is just one way BYU students can improve their advanced language skills. International internships are also available around the globe in most languages offered at BYU. The Chinese Flagship Program, however, goes beyond an internship. Through a partnership with Nanjing University, students take college-level coursework in their field of study—such as engineering or business—side by side with Chinese students in a Chinese-speaking classroom in Nanjing. Then they participate in an internship in country. This immersive experience not only strengthens language skills but also enriches students’ understanding of cultural norms.

For students who cannot spend time abroad, the center offers an immersive language experience on campus. The Foreign Language Student Residence places second-language learners with native speakers in apartments representing 11 different languages. While in their apartments students are allowed to speak only their assigned language, and native speakers provide regular language-building activities for the residents.

Optical Reader

A large part of BYU’s and the college’s success in language teaching has come through rigorous research. More than 80 professors of foreign language and another 20 professors of linguistics provide the college with depth and variety in its research. Some of these experts are using new technologies to expand understanding of how language learning works.

Take the college’s brand-new eye-tracking machine, for example. The machine uses infrared light to track where a reader’s pupils are on a computer screen. This enables researchers to see more precisely how language learners go about learning to read a new language—for instance, by having to go back and reread segments for further understanding.

Troy Cox, who heads up the eye-tracking technology research, is gathering data on reading speeds. He notes that English-based learners of languages with non-Roman script (such as Arabic, Cyrillic, and Chinese) read those languages more slowly than Roman script-based languages (such as German, Spanish, or French). He wants to know if the slow pace is a learner issue or merely a characteristic of the script. He is testing native speakers of Arabic, Russian, and Chinese to see if they read slower than native English, Spanish, and French speakers. Dozens of other such projects are in the works. (See page 10 for a larger sampling of language research at BYU.)

BYU’s many returned missionaries and their language skills motivate Cox and other language professors to continue researching foreign language learning and creating better means of teaching. “We are blessed here at BYU because of the many returned missionaries who have experience speaking foreign languages,” says Cox. And perhaps one of the best investments a returned missionary can make at BYU is to improve his or her language. “It’s kind of like the parable of the talents,” Cox says. “We have opportunities to bless lives with language skills, but we can’t if we don’t keep up with our language.”