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Program explores culture through language

Brown Student Language Exchange highlights cultures underrepresented at colleges and universities

Voices of Bengali, Amharic, Macedonian and Tagalog have gained new resonance on campus this week as the Brown Student Language Exchange kicked off this semester’s courses. 

BSLE’s five student fellows will share each of these languages with groups of 16 students during weekly 80-minute sessions throughout the fall semester. This structure of low-commitment, infrequent meetings caters to students with busy schedules, said Emily Davis ’15, language sharing specialist at BSLE. “You don’t have to commit a lot but still get to learn.”

As a Uruguayan, SLE Founder and Executive Director Amelia Friedman ’14 said she saw the need to start the Student Language Exchange because she was frustrated with the lack of access to lesser-known Spanish dialects.

Since SLE ran its first pilot at Brown in 2011, the organization has expanded to other partner institutions, including Columbia, Brandeis University and Tufts University, according to Lizzie Pollock, assistant director for social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center for Public Service.

The program exposes students to languages other than the Romance languages typically offered in higher education institutions, Pollock said. Some of the most widely spoken languages in the world are absent in college curriculums, leaving students ill-prepared to be “global citizens,” she added.

BSLE’s focus on the cultures of international students aims to celebrate the insights these perspectives can offer, Pollock said. Coming from an international school, Chiara Prodani ’14, who taught Albanian with BSLE in spring 2012, said she enjoyed getting to know people and cultures from all over the world. Because the University’s student population is primarily American, she aims to teach others about languages and cultures they were never aware of before, she said.

BSLE aims to “leverage the diversity on campus,” said SLE Director of Expansion Fiora MacPherson ’16, adding that her home country of Scotland remains underrepresented at the University.

Filip Simeski ’17, a BSLE fellow in Macedonian, said sharing his language with people who are unfamiliar with it allows him to view his own culture in a new light. One day last spring, when the sun was shining through a drizzle of rain, Simeski discovered that he and his friends from Croatia and India each describe this weather phenomenon with the same idiom: “The bear is getting married when it rains.”

Rather than focusing on linguistic mastery, BSLE helps students gain cultural awareness through access to a fellow who has been immersed in that culture, Pollock said.

“We’re not trying to compete with existing programs or fix the Brown curriculum,” Friedman said.

Prodani said that because programs start afresh every semester, there is little opportunity for students to progress to a more advanced stage in the language.

“I want to teach people some Macedonian, but it’s more important to learn about my culture and my country,” Simeski said. He added that rather than making the members of his course fluent in Macedonian, he aims to teach practicalities such as asking for directions and introducing themselves.

Katherine Hsu ’17, who took Dutch with BSLE, said she enjoyed the structure of the program’s short, weekly courses, adding that the aspects of culture incorporated into the lessons proved easier to retain than grammar rules. The program piqued her interest in Dutch culture and Germanic languages, and Hsu plans to travel to the Netherlands and study intensive German as a result of her experience.

Students have also continued with the languages they encountered at BSLE  by enrolling in formal and online classes, MacPherson said.

Aside from sparking interest in new cultures, the SLE program emphasizes how students can continue to engage with the cultures they learn about after the semester ends, she said.


A previous version of this article misspelled the name of a BSLE fellow in Macedonian. He is Filip Simeski ’17, not Simieski. The Herald regrets the error.


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