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Brown Language Festival gets students talking

First annual festival aims to encourage students to learn foreign languages, cultures while on campus

Tables offering brochures and snacks to passersby lined one of the Main Green’s paths Wednesday afternoon, and students clumped around them between shopping classes to chat with attendants, marking the first annual Brown Language Festival. Language and cultural groups, such as the Vietnamese Students Association, as well as Departmental Undergraduate Groups, such as Slavic Studies and Italian Studies, were represented at the event. In addition, tables promoted less commonly-taught languages like Turkish, and trivia contests and performances from student groups highlighted the afternoon.

The festival was hosted by the Center for Language Studies, the umbrella organization for all language offerings and language-related student groups at Brown. The festival’s organizers sought to promote one of CLS’s major goals: encouraging students to study a language during their time at Brown.

“Before my tenure here, the Center didn’t have the resources to reach out to the campus community,” said Ercan Balci, CLS director. He noted that there has been more emphasis on promoting language study among graduate students than undergraduates, and that he drew inspiration from language festivals at other colleges.

“I thought it would be a good way to celebrate languages, bring people together in a kind of fun and informal setting and let departments promote their languages and concentrations,” he said.

In addition to making the Brown Language Festival an annual event, Balci wants to create “language weeks.” Each week would focus on a language offered at Brown and feature talks, movies and panels, Balci said. He added that CLS would provide financial and staff support for these initiatives.

Balci said the festival seeks to combat the national decline in language study. Due to the lack of language requirements at Brown, students might not see the value of adding a language to their schedules, he said.

“Students think learning another language doesn’t add to their career, that English will be the only language used in business within 50 years. … This is a misconception,” he said. “Devoting five or six credits to languages is a very wise investment.”

Brown Student Language Exchange, a chapter of the national SLE organization and part of the Brown Language Society, also participated in the festival. The group offers informal classes for less commonly-taught languages. This semester, BSLE is teaching Indonesian, Macedonian, Ukrainian and Hong Kong Cantonese.

The classes serve primarily to expose students to languages and cultures not included in Brown’s curriculum.

“I consider BSLE’s mission to be changing attitudes toward languages and culture at Brown,” said Katherine Hsu ’17, the BSLE campus coordinator. “People might ask, ‘Why are you learning X language? No one speaks it.’”

But the informal classes that BSLE offers are difficult to pursue past the introductory level, Hsu said. After taking a Dutch class through BSLE, she wanted to continue studying the language through an independent study, but she was unable to secure University support. “One of the things I definitely want to see in the future is getting more support from Brown, so we can help our students in their pursuit of studying a language further, whatever it is,” she said.

Chien Teng Chia ’15 elected to teach Malay for BSLE in spring 2014 because she wanted to share her language and culture with others.

“I had really good students,” Chia said. “They were genuinely interested in (Malay), and they would ask things beyond what I was teaching. It made me feel glad that there are actually people out there who want to learn the language and put effort into trying to master it, even at a beginner’s level.”

Chia said she doubts her students will continue studying Malay, because there are few opportunities for Malay language-learning. But Chia said she believes she gave them a solid grounding in grammar and taught them a lot of vocabulary, potentially allowing them to engage in small talk with Malaysians. She added that she would be interested in teaching Malay at a higher level.

Harrison Pincket ’17 took Tagalog in fall 2014. He was inspired to learn the language because a lot of his friends and their families spoke it.

“It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be,” Pincket said, adding that it was more informal than a Brown course, and there were snacks and movies. “I looked forward to it more than I thought I would.”

Pincket said the class taught him not only words and phrases but also the basics of Tagalog grammar — “how to build the words,” something he said he would not have been able to master on his own. “It was an important part of what I learned,” he said, adding that he would like to take another BSLE class in the future.

“Learning a language goes so far beyond the linguistic nature of it,” Hsu said. “It increases your ability to empathize with other people and cultures.”


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