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The new ‘lingua franca’

December 8, 2014

The word “language” in the dictionaryAs English becomes the “lingua franca of the world” – the language spoken throughout international power circles of business and politics – countries with different native tongues want to ensure their children are prepared.

That list includes Ecuador, where profits from its vast oil resources help to fund tuition-free professional development in the United States for thousands of the South American country’s English educators.

NIU will welcome 47 of them in January for a seven-month immersion in speaking and teaching English.

James Cohen, assistant professor of ESL and bilingual education in the Department of Literacy and Elementary Education, secured a $1 million grant from the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education and Kansas State University to make the project possible.

Cohen is excited for what could become a long and prosperous partnership.

“We need a university-wide effort to make their stay here very comfortable. If we do well this time – if the students enjoy themselves, if they learn a lot, if they feel that NIU is a good home for these seven months – we can apply again” said Cohen, who also is the director of the College of Education’s federally funded Project DREAMS grant.

“This supports one of the goals of President Baker to internationalize the NIU campus,” he added. “Not only does Ecuador do this, but Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Chile do this as well, and Colombia is starting to do it now too. They all understand the value of English.”

Logo of ELS Language CentersThe teachers will spend five months studying English at the ELS Language Center, located on the third floor of the Health Services building, and two months taking three classes English as a Second Language Methods, Second Language Acquisition and Multicultural Education.

Cohen’s doctoral students, along with some of his master’s degree alums who are now teaching bilingual students in Illinois K-12 buildings, will serve as instructors of these three classes.

Meanwhile, they will receive hands-on experience practicing their English instruction and tutoring skills in local middle schools and high schools.

Packing these non-credit workshops and clinical work into seven months will provide a rigorous experience, Cohen said.

“Ecuador’s government is quite strict about this. They want these teachers to be studying all day long,” he said. “Each day they will have four hours of intensive English instruction. Then, after dinner, they will have 90 minutes of the multicultural class Monday through Thursday. The culture class and the Second Language Acquisition class each meet for nearly 68 seat-hours. The ESL Methods class is 112 hours. A typical three-credit course meets only 45 hours.”

James Cohen

James Cohen

Ranging in age from 20 to 40, the group also brings a wide variety of English mastery.

“Some are very advanced, and some are very beginning,” Cohen said, adding that the same is often true for bilingual teachers in this country: Many are not fluent in the languages of their young students.

Cohen discovered this opportunity though his friendship with Socorro Herrera, professor and executive director of the Center for Intercultural and Multilingual Advocacy at Kansas State University.

Four years ago, he said, KSU became one of the first U.S. schools to ink an agreement with Ecuador.

One thousand students later, Herrera is subcontracting grants to NIU and three other schools, which will divvy up 300 students from Ecuador. Another 500 will work through other U.S. universities which also have negotiated agreements with the South American nation.