ASU experts drive language programming forward as English Language Specialists

By

Alisa Reznick

Some 1.7 billion people are speaking or learning English around the world today, a number expected to hit 2 billion by 2020.

As demand for quality instruction grows, faculty at Arizona State University are driving the field forward by creating innovative programming for global classrooms as part of the U.S. State Department’s English Language Specialist Program.

The initiative recruits language education and applied linguistics experts to lead training workshops abroad. Responding to the language needs of local communities working in tandem with U.S. Embassies, assignments within the program are diverse and highly selective — around 80 specialists are chosen nationwide each year.

With four ASU personnel completing projects in 2018, the State Department recently recognized the institution as a top-sender to the program for the calendar year.

ASU’s specialists include Paul Kei Matsuda, a professor in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Department of English, Danielle McNamara, a professor at The College’s Department of Psychology, Robert Schoenfeld, the executive liaison for international student services at the W. P. Carey School of Business, and Global Launch instructor Vincent Lauter.  

Matsuda, an expert in second language writing, a related study of the English as a Second Language (ESL) field, traveled to Turkey with the program last year. He spent two weeks leading workshops, plenary addresses and roundtable discussions with English language instructors in Instanbul, Antalya and the capital Ankara.

He said the State Department accolade was an honor, but not a huge surprise.

“ASU has a concentration of specialists in the field of applied linguistics and is actually one of the epicenters of second language writing studies,” said Matsuda, who serves as the director of the Department of English’s second language writing track. “We also have some of the highest numbers of international students of a public institution, so there are a lot of research and teaching opportunities in the field.”

The trip was Matsuda’s most recent with the English Language Specialist Program since 2014 and one of many second language writing seminars he’s led over the last decade in the U.S. and abroad.

Rather than the theoretical leanings of its traditional counterpart, Matsuda said applied linguistics zeroes in on the use-oriented side of language, and the place it holds in our daily lives.

It is through the same, use-based lens that the Department of Psychology’s McNamara approaches the field.

“My specialty involves semantic and linguistic analyses of language, and comprehension in literacy and writing,” she said. “I have a hand in text and discourse, data mining and artificial intelligence, just to name a few.”

McNamara, who is also the director of ASU’s Science of Learning and Educational Technology (SoLET) laboratory, spent over two weeks on an English Language Specialist Program project in the Russian cities of Kazan, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Diverging from ESL and its related fields, her trip focused on improving literacy across the country. In seminars attended by educators and students, she introduced reading comprehension tools and tutoring systems created at the SoLET lab, and shared her research findings on literacy assessment techniques at large. 

[From left] Kazan Federal University professors Marina Solnyshkina, Valeriy Solovyev and Radif Zamaletdinov pose with Danielle McNamara, a professor in The College’s Department of Psychology who sent over two weeks in Russia conducting literacy tools trai

From left: Kazan Federal University professors Marina Solnyshkina, Valeriy Solovyev and Radif Zamaletdinov pose with ASU Department of Psychology professor Danielle McNamara, who spent over two weeks in Russia leading educator workshops as an English Language Specialist in 2018.

McNamara was named an American Educational Research Association Fellow in 2018 and has worked on developing educational programs for communities all around the world. Going forward, she said the field demands an increasingly interdisciplinary approach as it expands.

“It is not possible for one expertise to solve the complex problems that we face in the modern world,” she said. “Making links between these societies is important, and making links between people approaching literacy from different angles is also important; one of my focuses now is making those links more explicit.”

Similarly, W. P. Carey School of Business’ Schoenfeld said today’s linguistics studies reach across traditional fields of study to better serve learners.

“The reality is ESL is incredibly cross-disciplinary,” said Schoenfeld, who went to Bahrain and Kuwait to train English teachers through the English Language Specialist Program last year. “We want to teach English within the context in which people need to know it, whether for business, science, engineering or another field.”

That’s also the formula through which Global Launch’s Lauter was sent to Turkey’s Ankara and Istanbul late last year. At Global Launch, instructors work on developing digital language learning tools, multilingual skills courses and other academic support services for English-learning students, educators and other professionals.

Melding a journalism background with the ESL foundation he brings to ASU, Lauter’s specialist project focused on helping media professionals improve English writing and speaking proficiency.

Now in the midst of developing a digital learning platform for newsrooms using data gathered from his 2018 trip, he’ll return to Turkey for a new project this summer.

While the State Department’s assignments are focused on language training abroad, ASU’s applied linguistics experts also make an impact on campus.

Over 13,000 international students are currently enrolled at ASU, many of whom choose to bolster their language skills at Global Launch before heading into their majors. Lauter said making ESL programming a priority adds value not just to their experience, but to the institution as a whole.

“International students improve the knowledge and perspectives of the student population overall,” he said. “ESL, Second Language Writing, and other academic preparation programs contribute greatly to their success.”