JCCC foreign language prof is happy 'ayudar'

May 27, 2016

Samuel Sommerville’s work will be used by U.S. State Department to teach Spanish

Students learning Spanish at the U.S. State Department will benefit from the work of Samuel Sommerville, professor of foreign language at Johnson County Community College. 

The School of Language Studies at the Foreign Service Institute, where diplomats and their staffs train in languages and foreign policy, adopted portions of Sommerville’s curriculum and teaching methods.  The Institute offers training in more than 70 languages at its training center in Arlington, Virginia. 

Borrowing friendly words 

James Bernhardt, FSI’s director of curriculum, student and staff development, contacted Sommerville for permission to use his work for its revamped Spanish instruction program.  

“Your book, ‘Basic Spanish for Nursing Professionals and Clinics,’ is turning out to have a major influence on our work,” Bernhardt said in an email to Sommerville. Specifically, FSI wanted to borrow the design and style of Sommerville’s grammar explanations and his concept of “friendly” words. 

Sommerville gave his permission, and the FSI bought 20 copies of his booklet from the JCCC Bookstore.  

“It’s exciting to see that other people understand the value of what I’ve been doing,” Sommerville said.  

Las Pintas was motivation 

Sommerville created the helpful booklet while on sabbatical in 2014. His target audience was the nursing students who travel to Las Pintas, Mexico, each year as part of an ongoing service-learning project sponsored by JCCC. 

 “The students who sign up are well-prepared nursing professionals. They are ready for the medical component, but about half of them cannot speak any Spanish,” Sommerville said. “They needed basic conversation skills to prepare them.” 

Sommerville created a program that includes a graphics-rich booklet and an interactive online learning program. The DVD includes game-like exercises and sound files that help with pronunciation. Employees from JCCC’s Educational Technology Center helped Sommerville with the technical aspects of the project. 

In an online forum for foreign-language teachers, Sommerville shared some of his work, garnering not only attention from the State Department but also from other professors.  

‘Less is more’ 

After initially using a textbook to teach Spanish for Healthcare Professionals in Northwest Mississippi Community College, instructor Alisa June Turner now thinks Sommerville’s approach is better. 

“I’ve decided less is more, so I’m again looking at your manual,” Turner wrote Sommerville. 

As Summerville explained, “Most books out there are textbooks.” They’re too clunky and involved for classes targeted to specific audiences or for learners who have less than a full semester to study a language. 

Sommerville’s work fills that void. 

No dinero, but distinction 

The FSI added a thank-you note to its latest materials, stating, “The Spanish section would like to give special recognition and thanks to Professor Samuel J. Sommerville and Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas, for inspiring us as we created pedagogical strategies for the teaching of Spanish for special purposes.” 

Sommerville and JCCC will receive no royalties, he said, as the rules of a sabbatical leave prohibit an instructor from profiting from whatever product is made during the sabbatical. “Knowing that your work is valued and useful to others is enough,” Sommerville said.  

“The main idea was to benefit the volunteers and people of Las Pintas,” he said. “But now it’s going to help a lot more people.”