By Elizabeth Polson
The Center for Accelerated Language Acquisition, the language program offered through the Middle Tennessee State University Honors College, has reached its 20th year of helping participants achieve new language skills through fun and interactive classes offered throughout the year.
The program began in 2003 with the help of an MTSU special projects grant. Since then, various sources of MTSU financial and administrative support, especially from the deans and staff at the University Honors College, have been vital to CALA’s growth and development.
CALA Director Shelley Thomas said she was inspired to start the program after her son’s teachers said they were having trouble communicating effectively with their Spanish-speaking students and their parents.
“The purpose of our first CALA class was to teach Spanish to local K-12 teachers,” explained Thomas, a professor emerita of French. “We also provided a free English class to some of the Hispanic parents at Saint Rose (of Lima Catholic) Church.”
CALA is now a self-supporting nonprofit and can provide free classes to other nonprofits, both locally and internationally.
“Getting to the point where we can give back has been an enriching experience,” Thomas added.
As CALA was beginning, Thomas traveled to Smyrna, Tennessee, weekly to teach English to newly arrived Karen refugees, who fled the ongoing armed conflict within the country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
As the program grew, Chinese professors of English from the University of Inner Mongolia received a grant to travel to MTSU and attended a CALA English as a second language class four consecutive summers.
CALA uses a method called “whole brain learning,” in which both hemispheres of the brain help users learn a new language by combining physical response and storytelling. The combination makes the classes both very interactive and suitable for students regardless of their learning styles, Thomas said, adding that the process wouldn’t be possible without the teachers involved with the program.
“I’m grateful for the people who discovered these methods, trained me, and for those who agreed to get this unusual training to teach for CALA over the years. I admire them for what they later accomplished,” said Thomas.
CALA currently offers language classes in American Sign Language; Chinese, specifically Mandarin, which is the country’s most widely spoken language; French; Japanese; Spanish; and the Tamil language of southern India.
Many CALA teachers have found additional success in their careers. Ahmad Jedeeni, an Arabic language teacher, and Dylan White, who taught German for CALA, received their doctorates. CALA Latin teacher Jason Simpson is now the chair of the World Languages Department, and also teaches French, at the Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Jie Zhou, a Chinese language teacher for CALA, earned her master’s degree and returned to China with her family.
Several years into its operation, CALA added a yoga program to its curriculum. Rishi Purcell, the current CALA yoga trainer, travels around the country for a national nonprofit. The Tamil language teacher, Tanamayi Viapuri, also became a yoga teacher in the U.S.
Rebecca Clippard, a Japanese language teacher, is finishing her fifth year in MTSU’s Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. Haley Jensen, an American Sign Language teacher, developed her own business, Voice Off. Paolo Volpe-Rinanapoli, a teacher of Italian, continues as a faculty member fo the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at MTSU. And Brian Roberts, the associate director of CALA, is a longtime Spanish teacher for the program.
When COVID-19 hit, the program moved to online classes. Currently, telecourses in French, Spanish, Chinese and Tamil are available on CALA’s website.
Even though Thomas has retired from MTSU, she still heads the CALA program, which continues to operate as part of the University Honors College.
“Part of my job is training other teachers,” said Thomas. “I do that locally and have been invited to do workshops at national language conferences, at the American Councils for International Education in (Washington) D.C., as well as in India, China and Africa.”
When Thomas isn’t teaching new languages, she enjoys fostering ecological efforts.
“I am on the educational outreach team for Save Soil, the largest global nonprofit organization seeking to prevent rapidly advancing soil extinction,” explained Thomas, who is also a member of MoreTreesBoro, an organization dedicated to protecting and growing trees in Murfreesboro.
You can learn more about the Center for Accelerated Language Acquisition at MTSU at www.mtsu.edu/cala or contact director Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Elizabeth Polson is a 2023 MTSU graduate with a degree in psychology.