Columbia's American Language Program: 100 Years of Teaching English

Last May a 52-year-old University custodian received his B.A. in classics after arriving in the United States knowing hardly any English. Gac Filipaj (GS’12), who fled Yugoslavia in 1992 and got a job at Columbia the next year, attributes his success in part to the American Language Program, established a century ago to help immigrants like him. “Memories of my ALP teachers are still with me,” said Filipaj, who completed his bachelor’s over 19 years and now has his eyes set on graduate school. Thousands of students from over 100 countries have studied English through the program since its founding in 1912. What started as a $15 language course in 503 Hamilton Hall for immigrants in New York City—students did not have to be enrolled at Columbia to attend—has evolved into a robust linguistic and cultural curriculum with a focus on professional and academic fluency in the United States. Over 1,200 visiting students per year study English full-time in the ALP Intensive Program. Currently, many hundreds of undergraduate and graduate degree candidates also hone their oral and written English skills each year in advanced-level language classes. “Every day there is a new opportunity to give these students insight into American life,” said senior lecturer Shelley Saltzman, who has been teaching in the program for 25 years. Last spring Saltzman stood before her Intensive English class in Lewisohn Hall and outlined the details of a criminal case that involved a convicted felon on parole purchasing a firearm. Her 11 students were asked to deliberate the case as a real jury had in 1985, focusing on whether the defendant, who was mentally impaired, had knowingly broken the law. As they spoke, Saltzman corrected their language errors. Later they watched the actual deliberations as a listening exercise. The students—from Brazil, Japan, Korea, Israel and Saudi Arabia—chose their words and arguments carefully, reviewing the meaning of “jury verdict” and “grounds for acquittal” with Saltzman, whose topic that day was the American legal system. Other lessons that semester would focus on gender issues, whistle blowing and theater. For some of the students, English was their third or fourth language. “We have a method to take students to an extremely high level—that of a well-educated native speaker of English,” says David H. Quinn, director of the program since 1999 and a teacher here for 31 years. “One focus is on actual daily life situations, exploring American customs and society. Another focus is also on helping students develop the competencies needed for academic success. We help international students think critically, creatively and effectively and to do so in accurate, sophisticated English.” Many ALP students are furthering their careers, and the program offers special tracks for individuals in business and pre-M.B.A. students, lawyers and law students, aspiring teachers, and students who are entering Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. “I not only improved my oral English with my classmates by discussing and chatting both in and outside the classroom, but also learned a lot of practical skills,” said Erin Zi Yan, a Columbia Ph.D. candidate from China who will be a teacher’s assistant this fall. “Our teacher taught us several useful skills in organizing a class, such as the usage of linkage phrases, changes in pronunciation, the importance of eye contact with audiences and the way to do a good presentation.” The American Language Program has grown tremendously since its early days, when immigrants from the world over were flocking to New York. By 1921, the University offered seven English language courses on evenings and weekends. Advanced courses for degree-seeking, non-native English speakers were added when the School of General Studies was founded in 1947 and adopted the program. In the 1950s, as the U.S. government began granting visas to international students pursuing non-degree programs, Columbia welcomed an influx of students who wanted to learn English in New York City. The program transferred to the School of Continuing Education upon its founding in 2003, and today has 15 full-time instructors. It is also open to University employees, such as Filipaj. “We are helping adult learners of a second language find their voices,” said Quinn. “You learn a lot about yourself when you have to present who you are and your culture in another language.” —by Meghan Berry
August 27, 2012