DILS: An Unconventional Linguistic Opportunity for Citizens of the World

Musical performances in Swahili, Russian, Korean, Hindi and Arabic. Travel presentations showcasing the exotic beauty of Croatia, Tanzania, South Korea and Vietnam. Persian poems, Korean dances…

And food – tables overflowing with a dazzling array of dishes: Croatian cheese and crackers, Egyptian rice and lentil stew. Samosas from India, sushi from Korea. Greek spinach pies and flaky desserts. Persian celery and rice.

There’s something for everyone at the annual International Multicultural Night, organized each fall by students participating in the Directed Independent Language Study (DILS) program.

DILS gives students opportunities to study languages not offered by the University of Miami or the College’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. It is an individually directed program, where students work alone or in small groups directly with native speakers, known as Language Partners, of their target languages. DILS scouts and selects Language Partners from anywhere in the university or local community. 

Students enjoy DILS International Multicultural Night, an evening to celebrate different cultures from around the world.

Just like DILS itself, International Multicultural Night is “all up to the students,” said Dr. Maria Kosinski, who has directed the program since its inception in 2009.   

“We offer students who really wantto learn a language that is not offered an opportunity,” Kosinski said. “The philosophy behind DILS is for students to achieve basic levels of linguistic competence and broader cultural awareness as they study less commonly taught languages.”

When it started, DILS offered just three choices: Haitian Creole, Levantine Arabic and Russian. Now, students have studied more than 30 different languages – everything from indigenous Central American languages to European, Asian and African tongues.

University of Miami Executive Vice President and Provost Thomas J. LeBlanc said, “The Directed Independent Language Program dramatically expands the universe of language studies available to UM students. It is important that students be allowed to follow their curiosity, and DILS allows them that opportunity.”

Many DILS languages are considered critical to national security, including Arabic, Hindi, Korean, Persian/Farsi, Punjabi, Russian, Swahili, Thai and Turkish.

“We encourage students all the time to ‘think global’; that implies, among other things, the ability to communicate with the people of other countries, of other cultures, in their own language,” Kosinski said, adding that this is important even in countries where “we are told ‘everyone speaks English.’”

DILS is open to students of all majors, and in any year of study.

“I am always fascinated at the number of science majors taking DILS languages,” Kosinski said.

Eric Ardman, a microbiology/immunology major minoring in chemistry, has been studying Vietnamese through DILS for two years. He has traveled in Vietnam during each of the past two summers.

“I went into the trip with an open mind and was determined to at least try and communicate with locals,” he said. “I ended up accomplishing more than I ever thought I could.”

He was able to ask simple questions – Where am I? How much does this cost? – and make “small talk” with people he met. His skills were particularly useful when he visited a remote part of the country where English is not spoken.

“Finding food, a guesthouse and the historical landmarks were challenges that my language skills helped me overcome,” he said.  “By the end of my trip, I felt a connection to Vietnam that I know I would not have been able to make without knowing some Vietnamese. I felt like I was not just passing by for the view, but that I had a fuller experience, a more complete immersion and understanding of what it is like to live in Vietnam.”

Students who wish to gain this immersion and understanding must be disciplined and willing to work hard.

The DILS application process is extensive, and crystal clear. The application itself states: DILS requires motivation, a strong sense of commitment and self-sufficiency on the part of students. There is no regular teacher to provide clarification, daily structure or graded feedback on progress.

Instead, students work directly with a Language Partner, a native speaker of their target language, meeting for one hour twice per week to speak and learn. All sessions take place completely in the target language.

The Language Partners are a key aspect of DILS. They guide students through speaking and listening practice, helping them to use the language and giving them opportunities to “enter the world of the language, and implicitly of the new culture, they are studying,” Kosinski said.

Federico de Faveri, who studied Russian through DILS, said his Language Partner gave him an “outstanding” base in the language. “I think that I would never have gotten (strong evaluation) results without her.”

Because consistent conversation is so important in language learning, students are expected to attend every session, and to engage in other activities related to the language and culture. This includes organizing conversation groups, attending plays and films related to their language of study, maintaining blogs and podcasts in the target language, and creating videos.

Every two weeks, they submit progress reports to Kosinski, who visits practice sessions and communicates openly with both the students and the Language Partners. She is a hands-on leader, who is very involved with all aspects of the DILS program.

Although students do not receive academic credit or grades for their DILS study, their participation is noted on their transcripts.

They also participate in an oral final examination at the end of each semester, administered by an outside evaluator from a higher education institution where their target language is taught.

Senior biology major Sandra Diez – who is participating in the UGalapagos program this semester – studied Persian/Farsi during her junior year. She said, “The evaluations at the end of the semester are a great help because it truly shows you how much you know and which areas need more work.”

Jennifer North – a junior majoring in Latin American Studies and Spanish with minors in Portuguese and psychology – studied Quechua, a language spoken by indigenous peoples in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, through DILS.

“The DILS experience is extremely rich in a way that you could never get by studying from a book or online,” she said. “To be able to get a first-person perspective from somebody who spoke Quechua as a child. And for her to talk about the culture and customs, it becomes much more than just language study.”

Kosinski said, “It seems so obvious, yet I cannot promote the concept enough. The personal growth and the potential for career growth that come through the encounter with another language and culture are significant.”

Nikhil Ghorpade, a 2014 UM graduate, studied Swahili through DILS for one year with Language Partner Muchiri before participating in a study-abroad program in Tanzania.

“With Muchiri’s help, I was able to embark on my African journey with a working knowledge of spoken Swahili, and enough reading and writing comprehension to boot,” Ghorpade said.

Kosinski noted that she has seen an increase in students learning the language of their destination countries before participating in study abroad programs. “Students realize they should have some exposure to the language in advance,” she noted.

Ghorpade practiced Swahili with everyone he met in Tanzania. “I was the only one able to really speak with the Tanzanians. Although everyone we met was very friendly to non-speakers, I was able to experience, and understand, a whole different side of Tanzania than my peers,” he said, adding, “DILS had a huge impact on my academic career and will continue to help me in the future.”

Indeed, DILS has helped many College students to earn distinguished national and international awards and scholarships.

Kefryn Reese, UM’s director of prestigious awards and fellowship, works with students to maximize their candidacy for nationally competitive academic support programs.

She sees “a connection between DILS participants and success in nationally competitive awards programs which focus on international relations and language acquisition, like the Fulbright, Pickering, Rangel, Boren, Carnegie and Critical Language Scholarship programs.”

“Many national awards programs seek visionaries and people who are willing to challenge the status quo in order to make a difference,” Reese explained. “So, besides the fact that multilingualism is an increasingly important skill for leaders in today’s society, DILS attracts students who tend to want to learn a less commonly taught language for a specific academic or professional goal; they tend to be think-outside-the-box types.”

Andrew Szarejko, A.B. ’12, political science and international studies, is in his first semester of the political science Ph.D. program at Georgetown University. He is studying comparative government and international relations, focusing on Turkey – a country DILS helped him to discover.

After studying abroad in Turkey through UM’s exchange program with Koç University outside Istanbul, Szarejko knew he wanted to return to the fascinating country. When he got back to campus, he started studying Turkish through DILS.

This basic foundation helped him earn a competitive Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) from the U.S. Department of State and spend a summer studying the language in an intensive program in Turkey. He continued with DILS the next school year, and earned a second CLS the following summer.

“I first studied abroad in Turkey in the spring of 2011, but I eventually returned in the summers of 2012 and 2013 on Critical Language Scholarships,” Szarejko said. “DILS was especially helpful in the 2011-2012 academic year, as it ensured that my rudimentary Turkish did not get too rusty, and it demonstrated my continued commitment to learning the language. If not for DILS, I might not have received those scholarships.”

Beyond becoming proficient in the language, Szarejko also saw sides of Turkey that most people living outside the country rarely experience.

“I frequently discussed Turkish politics and pop culture with my Language Partner, Nurbay Irmak, and those conversations certainly gave me greater insight into Turkish culture. One of my favorite topics was the singer Tarkan – mainly because I knew how much Nurbay hated his music, ” Szarejko added.

Diez concurred, “The DILS program is a great opportunity for college kids to learn a new language, but also about countries, cultures and traditions.”

Kosinski said, “Students recognize the value and significance of languages for their personal lives, but also for their future careers. Studying languages can have a long-term impact in these areas, and on their world views.”

For more information about DILS, please visit: www.as.miami.edu/dils/.

November 13, 2014