Languages gradually return to Rensselaer

Experimental Mandarin Chinese course determines viability of new teaching approach

Later this semester, select students will participate in an experimental foreign language class, Mandarin II. The course, set up by Professor James Zappen, will be taught by Sui Duan. This is just one step in RPI’s process to eventually reinstate language courses in the official curriculum.

A couple of years ago, languages were cut during a period of budget reduction in response to the nation’s economic recession. The justification for this decision, Dean of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Mary Simoni explained, stems from the fact that most of the language courses at the time were “taught by lecturers rather than tenured or tenure-track faculty members.” She also mentioned that many incoming students have been disappointed by the lack of courses on foreign languages, stating that “some students come here having taken foreign language classes in high school, hoping to continue their studies in those languages.”

Last semester, however, a course on the Chinese dialect, Mandarin, was introduced. Mandarin I, as the course was labeled, was a highly experimental class accommodating only 12 students. Timothy Murphy ’13 explains that the course “was almost entirely vocal” and centered primarily around the concept of an “interactive role-play.” Meeting twice a week, the 12 students would practice their speaking abilities on Mondays and pretend to go to China and role-play on Thursdays. During these classes, the students were tasked with solving mysteries using their skills in Mandarin.

Because the class size was so small, it was not widely advertised, said Simoni. The size was due to the fact that the course was Rensselaer’s first step in “working toward a different way of teaching.” These courses, Simoni added, will increasingly involve the use of “immersive digital environments.” She went on to describe these environments as similar to video games, although students will learn both a country’s language and culture through interaction with the software’s intelligent agents.

However, Simoni mentioned teaching language and culture in immersive virtual environments is a very complex process. The intelligent agent must be able to respond to a student’s pronunciation or inflection, even if it is incorrect. By adding culture as part of the course, the complexity increases dramatically.

“Take business cards, for example,” Simoni said. “If I were to give you my card, you would just put it in your pocket without thinking about it, right? Well, in China, that would be considered very rude.” This, Simoni emphasized, is just one example of the many cultural nuances that the average person would not typically think to consider. Incorporating all of these factors into the software used for new language courses, she adds, is a time-consuming and non-trivial process.

These complexities, Simoni stated, makes it difficult to prepare a plan for the introduction of other languages in the future. It also restricts the number of students able to study foreign language courses at this time using a developing pedagogical method. Simoni wishes more students could have been accommodated in this Mandarin course. She also would like to see more diverse language offerings in the near future.

Despite this, Simoni is optimistic about the future for languages at RPI, stating that the experimental class has shown “a lot of promise.” It has shown enough, in fact, to warrant offering the course again in the fall. Murphy, having thoroughly enjoyed the class, recommends it to interested students, although he mentioned that it is a large time commitment.

Students interested in learning another language can also acquire access to free licenses of Rosetta Stone from the Office of International Programs. The license is only for the software, and students are responsible for purchasing all necessary hardware. However, Jamie Obst, senior program administrator of that office, emphasized that this should not be seen as a “primary source of language instruction.” Additionally, because RPI had few extra licenses, there are not any currently available. As a result, all interested students will be placed on a waitlist. For more information, or to apply for a license, contact the Office of International Programs or visit