Two students earn prestigious language scholarships
Two Binghamton University students have received scholarships from the U.S. Department of State to study critical languages abroad this summer.
Daniel McMonagle, an undergraduate student from Clarence, N.Y., who majors in linguistics and Chinese studies, and Erin Riggs, a doctoral student in anthropology from Running Springs, Calif., are among about 560 students to earn a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS). Binghamton University is the only SUNY school to have more than one CLS recipient for 2016.
The Critical Language Scholarship program has enabled more than 5,000 students overseas to examine languages such as Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Russian, Swahili and Turkish. McMonagle is spending the summer studying Chinese in Dalian, China, while Riggs is studying Punjabi in Chandigarh, India.
“It’s a year of curriculum put into two months,” McMonagle said. “This is an opportunity for me to use my Chinese as much as possible.”
Daniel McMonagle: Success in the U.S. and China
McMonagle admitted that he had “rudimentary” skills in Chinese before arriving at Binghamton University in the fall of 2013. But through his performance in the classroom and regional “Chinese Bridge” competitions, McMonagle has become one of the most advanced Chinese studies students in the Northeast.
“When I got to college, I knew I wanted to study a foreign language,” the 20-year-old said. “I took Arabic and Chinese my first year – and the Chinese just stuck really well. So I kept running with it.”
McMonagle’s “turning point” took place in the spring of 2014, when he finished third in the junior level of the Eastern Regional Chinese Bridge competition. The language proficiency contest is sponsored by Hanban (the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language) and requires contestants to give a speech and perform a talent.
“I practiced for that every day during my first year,” he said. “It improved my speaking because I was talking (in Chinese) a couple of hours a day outside the classroom with my teachers.”
McMonagle got his first taste of life in China following his freshman year when he received a Confucius Institute scholarship to study at Nankai University in Tianjin. The experience was initially a “culture shock” for a small-town student from the Buffalo area.
“It was intimidating at first,” he recalled. “I had never lived in a city and I had never had to take public transportation. But it was easy in China. They are so nice. Me speaking Chinese was surprising to them sometimes. They would say: ‘Your Chinese is so good!’ I thought: ‘You haven’t heard me say anything besides thank you!’”
In 2015, McMonagle took first place in the intermediate level of the Eastern Regional Chinese Bridge competition and spent the summer working as an instructor at the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera’s STARTALK camp at Binghamton University.
In the 2015-16 school year, McMonagle served as a teaching assistant in elementary Chinese classes, while also taking a poetry course with students from China.
“I’ve tried to find ways to keep using the language,” he said. “I’m afraid that it will go away if I stop.”
The spring of 2016 presented McMonagle with two more Chinese Bridge competitions to put his advanced skills to the test. He finished third in a New York City competition, but earned top prize in the talent category for his Chinese Opera performance of “Farewell, My Concubine.” He also finished second in a Boston event.
“The first-place finisher had been studying Chinese for 10 years,” he said with a laugh. “So that’s my excuse.”
The Critical Language Scholarship has taken McMonagle to the Dalian University of Technology. Dalian, called the “Hong Kong of northern China,” is a port city of 3.2 million on the tip of the Liaoning Province. Beijing is located across the Bohai Sea, while Korea is to the east, across the Yellow Sea.
While McMonagle said the prestige of the Critical Language Scholarship is nice, being in the Chinese environment and stressing the mutual understanding between the U.S. and China is most important.
“Before I learned the language, I didn’t have an impression of China besides ‘it’s a big country with lots of people,’” he said. “Now when I talk to my friends about China, it reminds me how little people actually know about it.”
McMonagle, who has not decided yet if he will graduate in the spring of 2017 or 2018, will return to Binghamton University in August and teach during the last two weeks of the STARTALK camp. He hopes to study abroad again next year and take linguistic classes taught in Chinese.
“Binghamton University is one of the best places to be if you want to learn Chinese,” he said. “I would encourage anyone coming in to take advantage of the opportunities here. Part of the reason my Chinese is so good is because of how great the teachers and teaching methods are here.”
Erin Riggs: Learning Punjabi to tell stories of the past
Historical archeology has appealed to Erin Riggs since she was an undergraduate student at the University of California-Berkeley.
“I like the stories of individuals,” she said. “When dealing with the recent past, you can think about what home space people lived in or what their yards looked like. You can read diaries or see snippets of them in newspaper articles or yearbooks. You get to know your subjects better.”
Riggs, who majored in anthropology and geography at Berkeley, wrote her senior honors thesis on a Japanese incarceration camp. She came to Binghamton University in 2013 to pursue her master’s degree because she was influenced by Randall McGuire, a distinguished professor of anthropology.
Adapting to Binghamton’s weather was a major transition for Riggs.
“In my hometown, there is snow,” she said. “But you can drive down the hill 30 minutes to the desert if you get sick of it. It’s a little rough here with the inescapable winter! But it has been fun.”
Riggs received her master’s degree in anthropology in 2015 and decided to remain at Binghamton for her doctorate. She is examining the partition of the British Indian Empire that led to the creations of India and Pakistan. Riggs’ research originated as an undergraduate when she volunteered to collect oral histories for a non-profit group called The 1947 Partition Archives.
The work in this area spurred Riggs to apply for a Critical Language Scholarship in 2015. She received the CLS and spent last summer learning Punjabi in Chandigarh, India. Punjabi is a language that many people who were displaced by the partition speak. The 1947 Partition Archives needs workers who speak the language, as well, Riggs said.
Riggs received the CLS in 2015 without having any experience with Punjabi – the 10th most widely spoken language in the world. She spent nine weeks in the northern city of the Punjab Region, taking classes with 11 other students.
Although Riggs ended the summer at a beginning/intermediate level, she said she was unsure whether she would be able to navigate India while developing language skills and executing fieldwork.
“I’m not quick to pick up languages, so it is difficult for me,” she said. “But when you are immersed in it with a host family and have to attempt to get around town and even buy coffee, you start to pick it up relatively quickly. … It was a wonderful trip.”
Like McMonagle in China, Riggs was buoyed by the support she received from the Indian people for using the language.
“They are astounded even if the phrase you are saying is: ‘My Punjabi is very bad. I’m sorry,’” Riggs said with a laugh.
The 24-year-old is now back in Chandigarh for a second round of Punjabi training, thanks to her second Critical Language Scholarship. Besides improving her language skills, Riggs will travel to Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, where she will meet with professors and students to discuss and plan her future fieldwork. Riggs hopes to return to India in 2017 or 2018 to interview Punjabi-speaking elderly people in India – and their descendants – who were affected by the partition.
Riggs emphasized that there are benefits to not only learning more than one language, but taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the Critical Language Scholarship program.
“There are too many Americans who speak only one language,” she said. “I’m one of those Americans – and I’m trying to remedy that. (Knowing one language) narrows your perspective of the world. Language not only allows you to communicate with others, but it’s an important skill to invest in.
“CLS is a good option for people like me who find language study difficult. The immersion makes it impossible not to learn. You don’t have the option to not try.”