- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Anne Zajac hopes to conduct research in Spanish-speaking countries. Mark McNamee must talk with colleagues when he’s abroad on business. Carol Roop wants more communication with her bilingual grandson.

The three are Virginia Tech employees whose paths normally don’t cross: Dr. Zajac is a veterinary school associate professor, Mr. McNamee is the provost, and Miss Roop is a receptionist in the computer science department.

But they are among dozens of faculty and staff members brought together by a new university program that offers them free foreign-language training.

Response to the program, which started last fall with beginning Spanish and Italian, has been nothing less than magnifico.

More than 75 staff members wanted to take each of the fall classes, said Andrew Becker, chairman of the foreign language department.

Because only one pilot class of each language was offered, several people ended up on the waiting list.

The beginning classes were repeated in the spring and intermediate sections were added, along with beginning Mandarin Chinese.

The classes have been so popular that the university plans to add four more languages in the fall — Arabic, French, Japanese and Korean.

That’s a far cry from the response Mr. Becker received about 10 years ago when he proposed a program to help Virginia Tech’s faculty learn foreign languages. Then, he was unable to get that proposal off the ground.

Today, the school appears to be ahead of the curve on language training for faculty.

George Mason University, which the Princeton Review labeled the most diverse in the nation with 168 countries represented on campus, offers no language training for its faculty.

“Oh, excellent,” Marty Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said when told of the program.

Language training for instructors so far is more common on the secondary level, she said, with Spanish classes offered teachers in public-school systems with large Hispanic populations.

More colleges and universities are making an effort to be sensitive to the needs of their international students, Mr. Abbott said, and the classes should have that result at Virginia Tech.

At least 110 nations are represented among the university’s international students, who make up about 8 percent of the 26,000 students.

The intense faculty interest in language classes was no surprise to Brad Fenwick, university vice president for research. Mr. Fenwick suggested the training based on his experience with a similar program at Kansas State.

“The international and world view is pretty high right now,” he said in a telephone interview.

The Internet has expanded the horizons of faculty research greatly in recent years, Mr. Fenwick said. “We have collaborators all over the world.”

Translations are available through computer software for written communications, Mr. Fenwick said, but that isn’t enough for international communication.

For one thing, Mr. Becker said computer-generated translations are not always reliable. And faculty members travel to other countries to meet researchers with whom they have formed partnerships.

“Our goal is to make them conversationally fluent when they travel overseas or talk with their colleagues,” Mr. Fenwick said.

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