Why do students love language classes?

In any given year, over 30 languages are taught at Penn. This probably isn't a surprise to most students, who have heard the fact jumbled into the mantra presented on brochures and tours of the University.

"We can teach every language you can think of," tour guides are known to say. "From Afrikaans to Zulu."

What's more surprising is that language classes monopolize the top spots on Penn Course Review ratings.

The average nonlanguage department has a "course quality" rating of 2.80 out of 4.00 - the average language department is rated a 3.25. Out of 110 departments consistently teaching undergraduate courses from Spring 2009 to Spring 2015, only three language classes are ranked in the bottom-half based on "course quality."

As for "instructor quality," language classes also fare far better than other classes. Nonlanguage departments score an average of 3.02, while language departments are rated at 3.44. Twenty-one of the top 25 departments ranked by "instructor quality" are language departments, and 13 of the top 30 ranked professors teach language classes.

Comparison of Language Classes

Compared to STEM, social sciences and even other humanities departments, language departments set themselves apart. The reason lies somewhere in the personalized, intimate classroom environment so routine in language education, but uncommon among the hundreds of other classes Penn offers its students.

A personalized education

At the end of the semester of FREN-130, students create a project that represents Paris. Some build websites, some write fictional narratives, some record videos, some design brochures and some use social media to tell a story.

This is the type of multi-modal enterprise that language departments are known for. In KORN-132, students watch music videos and television clips to learn about Korean culture. In TURK-021, students use smartphones, newspapers and websites like Canvas to interact with course material.

The projects allow students to build on their individual strengths. "The students have a sense of achievement and accomplishment at the end of semester," said Sophie Degât-Willis, the coordinator of FREN-130. "They work hard on their projects because they're so interested in them. They actually want to do the work."

Most of the Penn's language classes are designed for small groups engaging in learning through hands-on activities. Any given class day may be split between learning new grammatical concepts, speaking with partners, watching videos and playing games that improve fluency. Lecturing is relatively rare, and when it does happen, professors shortly move to break-out sessions to give students the chance to practice.

"In terms of retention of material and engagement, lecturing is at the bottom of the learning pyramid," said College senior Catalina Mullis, who is obtaining her certification to become an English language teacher. She had studied French, Spanish and Portuguese. "Every 10 to 15 minutes, you're engaging a different part of your mind so you don't zone out."

There is a certain level of intimacy students tend to feel with their language classes that they can't find elsewhere. The small classroom allows them to feel on par with their instructors, which is emphasized by how open the instructors are with sharing their personal stories and opinions about foreign cultures.

Romance languages professors are encouraged by department heads to share personal accounts, which is supposed to encourage students to do the same.

"Language classes are so small you really actually know your professor, but more importantly, the professor knows you," said College senior Abby McDonald, a major in French and biological basis of behavior. "In science classes, most professors won't even know you're in the room. You are literally a student ID."

When thinking about it like this, McDonald says, it makes sense language professors receive higher ratings. It's easier to like someone when you actually know them.

Language classes can take on a familial atmosphere. Instructors bring students out to authentic restaurants or bring authentically cooked food into the classroom. One Portuguese professor is known for bringing in freshly cooked bread filled with cheese into class for her students to sample.

"I have loved every single one of my language professors," said College senior Scott Altman, an Italian studies major who is interested in going to graduate school for education. "They're extremely nice and they're always willing to assist us in any way they can."

Knowing that Altman is a fan of the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, his professor recommended a nearby event for him to attend on the writer. Small interactions like these, Altman says, make the experience feel personal.

There are other ways the language program gets personal, too. Gregory College House hosts in-residence half-credit courses in which students talk in their foreign language with the group and an instructor. Some language departments host "table talks," which take on a similar format.

If a language a Penn student wants to study isn't one of the many offered officially by the university, the Penn Language Center probably has an instructor (or can get one) to teach it.

The Penn Language Center assists language departments in all sorts of ways. It administers language proficiency tests, provides tutoring and online courses for students and hosts language classes for specific purposes: "Medical American Sign Language" and "Spanish for Health Professionals," along with business Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

Language instructors tend to describe themselves as mediators rather than lecturers or instructors. They spend their hours outside of the classroom organizing activities, and inside the classroom, they keep their own speaking minimal to let their students do the work.

"When you see everybody speaking... when you hear that noise in your classroom, that's when you know things happening as they should be," Director of the Portuguese Language Program Mercia Flannery said. Portuguese receives the highest ratings on Penn Course Review of any romance language.

"When that happens, you know you're doing what you're supposed to do."

Comfortable mistakes

College freshman Justin Bean walked into his first day of Arabic with no idea what to expect. He took Spanish in high school, but he wanted to try something new - something that might help him get a job in national security or counterterrorism some day.

The professor didn't speak a word of English in the 16-student seminar. But, somehow, students learned the basics of what he was saying. Bean learned to repeat back his name and some basic facts about himself.

Finally, at the end of the hour, his professor revealed his English. "There, you just spoke Arabic," he said. "It's not that hard."

It turns out that Arabic was hard for Bean. He finds himself spending as much time on Arabic outside of the classroom as he does on all of his other classes combined. Language classes usually come easily to him, but this one didn't - something he attributes to the new alphabet.

Even so, the professor made Bean's class worthwhile.

"I think the reason why I enjoyed it so much was because I felt okay making mistakes in front of him," Bean said. "You're in a setting where you're meant to fail and fail repeatedly, and you get to see if your professor will support you or criticize."

When he signed up for a second semester of Arabic, he made sure to switch into the class with his old professor. "I don't mind going to class, which for a hard class is hard to say," Bean said.

If there is one philosophical underpinning that language instructors share, it's probably this: Language learning is never complete, but rather, something that is consistently strengthened over time through practice and experience.

Part of that learning experience is feeling comfortable enough to try new conjugations and incorporate new vocabulary words. A teacher's role is about creating that comfortable environment.

"We almost encourage students make mistakes," Degât-Willis said, the FREN-130 coordinator. "If what you're doing is perfect, you're not going to learn."

About 15 years ago, the romance language departments began moving away from the use of high-stake midterms and finals toward lower-stake projects. The effort, which coincided with a national change in attitudes about teaching methods, is meant to encourage students to focus on learning rather than doing well on assessments. This, in turn, is supposed to help students learn more.

The "amount learned" variable on Penn Course Review stopped being tracked by the College of Arts and Sciences about two years ago, but the general trend before that seems to indicate that student do take away more from language classes than other classes. For the classes in which "amount learned" ratings are still available - which includes 14 language departments - the trend is more subtle but still present. The average "amount learned" rating for a language department is 2.98, while the average for nonlanguage departments is 2.86.

"I went from not speaking anything to being able to understand most cognition after two semesters," Bean said. "You're learning more than you've ever learned in any other class."


New romance language instructors can expect an entire year of training as they become oriented to Penn's methods of teaching. It begins in August before classes start, with a boot camp-style week-long introduction to Penn's teaching philosophies with forums to ask questions about classroom interactions.

New TAs only teach one section, and they have to be approved by department heads before teaching more. This holds for all the romance language departments - French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese - which are organized to run in unison, maintaining the same structure and requirements for all their faculty.

Each romance language course (for example, PRTG-212 or SPAN-120) has professors who teach individual sections and a coordinator who oversees all of the sections and professors who teach them. The coordinators for all of the classes in a particular language will report to the head of the language department, and the departments heads each report to Kathryn McMahon, the director of romance languages.

For the last ten years, romance language instructors have been officially required to administer mid-term evaluations that dig deeper than Penn Course Review. Unofficially, McMahon said, professors have been handing out their own evaluations for over 30 years.

All romance language instructors are required to read their evaluations - both "in-house" department evaluations and those that become public on Penn Course Review. They fill out forms summarizing their in-house evaluations, noting both strengths and weaknesses. Their evaluations are also reviewed by course coordinators, and can be accessed by department heads if need be.

Other language departments have their own variations of oversight for their professors, but none appear to be as organized as the romance languages. The most simple reason is the number of students taking each class. Spanish and French might hold 10 or more sections of a single course, whereas some languages only operate with a single instructor.

Within the romance languages, students are asked to take part in their own self-evaluations, reflecting on strengths and weaknesses in the classroom setting. Professors are strongly encouraged to pursue one-on-one meetings with each student in the first two weeks of the semester to start getting feedback from them early on, and to help tailor the class toward students' needs and objectives.

"The end-of-semester evaluations happen when the semester's over - that's a statement of how the semester went," said Flannery, the Portuguese language program director. "If you didn't stop to listen to what was going on that semester, how would you possibly make adjustments if any were needed?"

Home-grown motivation

On April 12, Luther Obrock sat at his table at the Quaker Days open house, trying to get the attention of any incoming freshman he could. It was another step in his long-term mission: Get 50 percent of the Penn student body to take Sanskrit.

Sanskrit is one of the oldest Indo-European languages once popular in India and the surrounding regions. Like Latin or Ancient Greek, it is rarely spoken, but its relevance lives on in poetry, dramas and scientific texts, as well as religious texts in Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism.

Obrock says three types of people take Sanskrit: heritage students from South Asia looking to learn more about their backgrounds, linguistic enthusiasts who want to scrutinize the origin of modern languages and yoga fanatics hoping to explore the language and culture behind the practice.

Unlike modern European and Asian languages which students may take so they can study abroad or get a job, virtually all students who take Sanskrit have a strong intrinsic motivation, Obrock says.

"This is something students do for themselves to open up their horizons," he said. "It's not just path to somewhere else. It's the cultivation of a mental pursuit that makes it worthwhile."

Language classes, instructors agree, teach so much more than language. They teach about other cultures and build empathy around other ways of living.

Academic research suggests that bilingual individuals have advantages over monolinguals, like the ability to learn words easily, come up with solutions to problems and listen to others. Compared to monolingual children, kids raised in multilingual environments tend to be better at understanding another person's perspective - something called "theory of mind."

At Penn - a school where about 12 percent of the student body is international - students who pursue advanced language classes often already speak multiple languages, which makes acquiring more languages an easier process. Students who take more specialized languages like Afrikaans or Taiwanese most often have a background in the language or in the culture that speaks the language.

Students who take Turkish, the highest rated department at Penn based on "course quality" and "instructor quality," are either heritage learners or studying the Middle East, said Turkish Language Program Coordinator Feride Hatiboglu.

Hatiboglu helps students learn more about Turkish culture by taking them to Turkish restaurants or museum exhibits. She also encourages all her students to study abroad so they can experience the culture for themselves. When her students return, they give presentations on their experiences to encourage others to take their own trips abroad.

In the fall semester, Hatiboglu plans to implement a "passport project," which will bring the abroad experience to the classroom. As the class studies new parts of Turkey, they can mark it off in their passports.

Students in the College are required to complete a fourth-semester level language course. Outside of the College, students spend their time focusing on other requirements, usually opting not to pursue a language. Professors like Hatiboglu and Obrock hope to change that, and students who have themselves become inspired by language learning hope the same.

"I think any student that has the opportunity to take a language class, if they are at all interested or see themselves potentially being interested, they should definitely take advantage of what's offered here at Penn," said Engineering sophomore Connie Chen, who grew up hearing her grandmother speak Taiwanese. She chose to study the language for two semesters, and also took one semester of Mandarin for heritage speakers.

"You won't get that opportunity in a lot of other places."