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NIU celebrates bilingualism with unique offer for students

March 16, 2015
Lisa Freeman

Executive Vice President and Provost Lisa Freeman

In an increasingly connected world, the best-prepared college graduates will be those who can work and communicate with people across the globe. That reality is at the heart of a new Northern Illinois University program that rewards bilingualism with actual college credits.

NIU’s “Celebrate Bilingualism” initiative offers up to 12 credits for undergraduate students who can pass a standard test for fluency in languages other than English.  In addition to the free credits (awarded at the end of a successful semester), students who take and pass the test will have their bilingualism noted on their official transcripts, and will be given a certificate to show potential employers.

“Everything we do at NIU is aimed at creating student career success,” noted Executive Vice President and Provost Lisa Freeman. “We know that students who graduate with an ability to work in an increasingly integrated and globally connected world will find career success, and this program is meant to underscore our commitment to that goal,” she said.

Fifty students participated in a pilot program in fall 2014. About half passed the test for their native language and were awarded the twelve credits.

“This test (the Standards-based Measurement of Proficiency or STAMP) is very difficult,” explained Katharina Barbe, chair of NIU’s department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. “It tests for all four aspects of language proficiency – reading, writing, listening and speaking. The instructions are in English, so the student really must be proficient in two languages.”

Katharina Barbe

Foreign Languages and Literatures Chair Katharina Barbe

Students who pass the test must score at the “Low-Advanced” level, which in spite of its name is near the top of the achievement scale.

“The easiest way to describe the level of fluency we’re looking for is to say that one must be able to conduct all aspects of business in that language,” Barbe explained. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, I grew up speaking XYZ language’ – applicants must be truly fluent in all four aspects.”

Sophomore Wataru Hashimoto of Elgin was born in Japan but has lived in English-speaking countries since the beginning of high school. He passed the STAMP test and says he appreciates both the credits he earned and the thinking behind the program.

“Being bilingual not only helps us understand cultural differences, but also helps us appreciate our own uniqueness,” he said. “Learning to speak English helped me develop better study habits, and I’m thinking of declaring a minor in Japanese, which looks good on a resume.”

Barbe says students who fail to pass the test may be encouraged to take a foreign language refresher course and try again. Even those who pass and earn the 12 credits may want to take a language class or two to qualify for a minor in that subject.

“Minors indicate a bona fide interest in and mastery of a subject, and they can indeed make a difference to potential employers,” she said.

While some students might take the test in hopes of reducing their time to graduation, Barbe thinks most will see it as an opportunity to free up their schedules and take additional electives they hadn’t considered before.

That scenario appeals to sophomore Yessica Puga of Aurora, who took and passed the Spanish STAMP test.

Are_You_Bilingual_Icon[1]“The way I see it, if I’ve mastered a subject, I want the opportunity to take classes in subjects I don’t know much about to enrich my overall knowledge,” she said. “I think NIU did a cool thing by allowing students to assert their skills and get ahead in their studies.”

Students interested in taking the STAMP test should visit the Celebrate Bilingualism website at www.niu.edu/celebrate-bilingualism for testing days and hours. Languages currently available for testing in NIU’s Foreign Language Lab are Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese and German.  Students interested in testing for other languages should contact Foreign Language’s Lynne Meyer at 753-1501 or by email at  [email protected].