Welcoming the School of Korean

Michael Geisler, vice president for Language Schools, Schools Abroad, and graduate programs, discusses the significance and expectations of the newest of the Language Schools, opening in 2015 at Middlebury's West Coast site at Mills College.

The School of Korean will be the 11th of the internationally respected Middlebury Language Schools. Why Korean and why now?

Middlebury Language Schools play an important role in educating qualified and proficient language students throughout the world. Whether our students use their education professionally, academically, or purely for the love of language and culture, our programs offer some of the finest immersive experiences available.

The Korean language and culture is one that is of great interest to our current and prospective students. There is a strong traditional heritage population in the United States, with 1.7 million people of Korean descent in the United States, according to the 2010 census report, and that is an increase of nearly 40 percent since 2000. Relative to other languages taught at Middlebury, Korean—with 1.1 million speakers in the U.S.—would rank fourth behind only Spanish, Chinese, and French. And South Korea, as one of the G-20 major economies, is a growing economic powerhouse with important business relationships worldwide, while North Korea presents complex geopolitical issues that make it highly relevant for the foreseeable future.

Why now? As with any language we introduce, the goal is to be proactive to the language needs of the world so that we can be better prepared to respond. The Language Schools thoroughly prepare their students in key skill areas, including reading, writing, literacy, speaking, and, maybe the most important, cultural knowledge. These are the skills we need in order to foster productive and lasting relationships with other countries, such as Korea. 

There are certainly other important languages we need to add—Turkish, Persian (Farsi), Urdu, Vietnamese, Swahili—but we have to be thoughtful to introduce one at a time to ensure its longevity and success. Middlebury is highly esteemed for its reliability in its offerings—if we open a school, our constituents need to know that school will still be around and flourishing for years to come. 

What are some of the challenges of teaching Korean?

Anytime nonnative speakers immerse themselves in a particular language and culture it presents challenges—even more so with a country as internally complex as Korea. That’s why the cultural studies are such an integral part of our curriculum. We create an intensive immersive experience, but in an entirely nonthreatening environment where your professors and peers will help guide you through linguistic and cultural pitfalls. The Language Schools are by no means a replacement for going abroad, but rather an opportunity to experience the closest thing possible in a supportive and productive atmosphere. 

Korean is considered one of the more difficult languages, on the same level as Arabic and Chinese, for instance. We will plan carefully to prepare incoming students appropriately, providing some studies and exercises they can do before coming to campus to lessen the shock of total immersion once they’ve taken the Language Pledge®.

Can you tell us a little about the founding director?

Our founding director, Sahie Kang, was selected from a very impressive pool of applicants and brings an astonishing level of experience and capabilities to the job. She is an expert in language acquisition and teaching methodology, but most importantly she has a passion for bringing the teaching of Korean in this country to the next level.

Kang said recently, “I envision that the School of Korean at Middlebury would provide the forum or opportunity for Korean learners, its educators, and experts across the world to learn, improve, and share Korean language, its culture, and expertise. So the school can eventually play the leading role in teaching Korean and its culture to professionals of various disciplines, and can be internationally recognized as the symbol of excellence, representing the United States for quality Korean and its cultural training and education.”

She has a PhD in linguistics from the University of Florida and is currently a professor of Korean and dean of the School of Resident Education for Advanced Studies of Languages at the Defense Language Institute. She is also the founding chair of the Korean Special Interest Group at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and has served as vice president of the International Association of Korean Language Education. She has authored numerous publications on Korean language education and assessing language proficiency. She has been a Master Trainer and tester for the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview since 2002 and has conducted numerous OPI Assessment workshops—which she says is one of her favorite academic activities—in major universities in the United States as well as in Korea.

Clearly we are thrilled to have her join the Language Schools next summer.

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