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THE LANGUAGE OF BUSINESS
UW–Madison’s Language Institute is helping a generation of future professionals tap the power of bilingual talents in the global marketplace
By Danielle Russell When Dianna Murphy, associate director for the University of Wisconsin–Madison Language Institute, graduated with a degree in Russian in 1989, she had two career options: work in government or teach. This was the case for many language students at the time, but Murphy says a lot has changed since then. “There are so many things you can do today with languages, primarily in business,” Murphy says. Today’s globally connected business world has opened the floodgates on career possibilities for students with foreign language skills. The Language Institute is helping students recognize the importance of studying foreign languages and preparing them to enter a global economy. Part of the College of Letters and Science, with substantial support from the Division of International Studies, the Language Institute takes language studies beyond the classroom through collaborative outreach programs for high school and undergraduate students.
During one such event, World Languages Day, the institute invites more than 700 Wisconsin high school students to the campus to learn about different languages and cultures. The program plants the seed early that language acquisition is a smart career strategy. According to Language Institute Director Sally Magnan, “The idea is to expose the students to languages that maybe they’ve never heard of before.” Another program — Languages for Life — focuses on the campus community by hosting guest speakers who have graduated from UW–Madison to discuss the real-world application of their language degrees. “The biggest benefit is for people to see language learning as a real and necessary part of their professional as well as their personal lives,” Magnan says. She adds that, although most Americans don’t traditionally make this connection, the Language for Life series provides living examples that can help students integrate language learning into other domains of their lives and not just the language classes they take.
This government Web site displays language translation software used by Kathleen Egan, head of the language research and development program at the U.S. Department of Defense. Egan demonstrated the software during a November “Language for Life” program on campus, sponsored by the Language Institute. Photos: Jeff Miller
In past events, the series has showcased Karina Shook, a NASA mechanical engineer with a degree in engineering and Russian, and Anthony Shadid, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist
Kathleen Egan (left) speaks about her experience providing translation and interpreting services for government during a Language for Life program, which gives students an opportunity to meet alumni who are using their language degrees in inspiring ways. In the background is guest speaker Jacolyn Hudson of the Geo Group Corporation in Madison.
who studied Arabic at UW–Madison. Kathleen Egan, the head of the language research and development program within the U.S. Department of Defense, spoke at the November 2006 Language for Life event on campus. A UW–Madison graduate, Egan shared with a crowded room of undergraduate students new computer translation programs and also stressed the importance of language learning in a global environment. “People disagree because we don’t understand each other. That’s the part we need to understand,” Egan told the audience. “It’s more than knowing the grammar. It’s more than
knowing the culture. It’s understanding the hearts and minds of others, and through understanding the hearts and minds of others, you can stop wars, you can make peace, you can create communities, and I think that’s what the world is really all about.” Egan also debunked myths and worries about career limitations for language students, saying that the need for foreign language skills is growing especially in communications, government, business, medicine and social services. “When you have another language, you are richer,” Egan says. “You have a better vision of the world, you’re more agile, you’re smarter than others, and I really do believe that.” Tiffany Iliadis, a junior studying Chinese and a frequent Language for Life event attendee, says the guest lectures are highly beneficial for language students. Although she considered studying Chinese at other universities, she says she fell in love with the Chinese department at UW–Madison after her first year. Iliadis’s real passion lies within the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. Having studied yoga and currently working in an herbal medicine store, Iliadis says she hopes to use her language degree as a passport to reach her career goals. It’s one of the scores of creative ways in which students are putting language skills to work. Magnan says the student-focused programs such as Languages for Life will motivate future business leaders to include language study in their college plans. “If [students] understand that language is going to be an asset to them, then they’re going to learn more than one language and down the line, they’ll enter companies with much more expertise,” Magnan says. “Although English is often used as a ‘lingua franca’ — or universal language of commerce — business doesn’t get conducted in just English anymore.” Murphy agrees, noting that picking up cultural cues is just as vital as understanding the language. “It’s increasingly important that our students are able to interact with others who are different than they are,” she says. “The stereotype of the boorish American charging into a business situation doesn’t fly anymore.” Murphy stresses the importance of study abroad programs for students to develop a broader sense of cultural awareness. She notes that UW–Madison is a leader in study abroad opportunities for its students, ranking eighth nationally in the total number of students pursuing the experience.
Tiffany Iliadis, a junior studying Chinese, questions a guest speaker during the Language for Life program. Iliadis is planning to use her degree to study traditional medicine in China.
“Our efforts are part of a larger effort on campus, spearheaded by the Division of International Studies, to internationalize the curriculum to better prepare students to become global citizens who can operate between different cultures and who are comfortable with cultural differences,” she says. Although much of its efforts are focused on students as future global communicators, the Language Institute understands the urgent demand for professionals to expand their language abilities while maintaining their businesses. “We know that it’s virtually impossible for working professionals to take time off from work to take classes on campus five days a week,” Murphy says. “We’re exploring new ways to decrease barriers to instruction while recognizing that learning a language takes a lot of time and a lot of practice.” The Language Institute is looking toward online instruction to aid working professionals. This year, the institute is developing online courses in Conversational Chinese for Business Professionals and Elementary Urdu. Magnan hopes to continue developing these programs and also additional language courses online in the future. The Language Institute, along with the National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages, has also received funding from the U.S. Department of Education to develop online methodology courses for postsecondary teachers of languages other then French, German, Italian and Spanish. With yet another Department of Education grant, the institute is also developing advanced materials for Central Asian languages Kazakh and Uzbek. For more information about the Language Institute and its programs, visit http://www.languageinstitute.wisc.edu
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