On Monday nights, the sixth floor of the Sciences Library comes alive with the sound of students practicing their diverse language skills: a large group converses around a table labeled “SPANISH”; students sign to each other in a circle at a table marked “ASL”; and Telugu, Gujarati and Marathi can be heard in the next room, interspersed with laughter. Throughout the floor, smaller groups of students are scattered around speaking Mandarin, Russian and a host of other languages.
Open Hours, hosted by the Center for Language Studies, meets weekly at the SciLi from 6-7 p.m. Students at all levels of language fluency gather to practice their skills in an informal setting, often accompanied by falafel from East Side Pockets.
According to CLS Director Jane Sokolosky, the Open Hours grew out of another center initiative called Language Tables, which launched in 2019. At Language Tables, language-specific groups of students gather at different locations around campus every week to practice their skills in a more focused way, Sokolosky explained.
But students expressed a desire to bring language learners together into a larger community. In response, four CLS language ambassadors — Anoop Gurram ’21, Niharika Jhingan ’21, Erza Ajeti ’22 and Megan L. Zhang ’22 MAT ’23 — drafted a proposal to create the space. The result was Open Hours, which launched Oct. 2, 2019.
According to Selena Kiu ’24, lead language ambassador at CLS, the program has since grown from less than 20 students to nearly 50 regular attendees.
“A lot of people that come are people who used to take language classes and are looking to refine their language skills,” said Gidget Rosen ’24, the Language Tables coordinator and an Open Hours attendee. “Others are here because they’re really into learning new languages.”
Many students attend Open Hours to brush up on languages they stopped studying when they came to Brown, said Laura Romig ’25, another language ambassador. “There’s a ton of students who don’t get an opportunity to speak a language they learned in high school,” she added. “There’s a lot of need for community around that.”
“It’s scary to put yourself out there, but … every single person here is struggling,” Rosen said, speaking about the low-stakes environment at Open Hours. “That’s what’s so special about places like this. It’s really, really comfortable and everybody is making mistakes.”
One of the most consistent communities at Open Hours is the South Asian Desi language room, where language ambassador Neil Shah ’25 facilitates a large conversation group, which involves Hindi-Urdu, Gujarati, Kutchi, Marathi, Bangla, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam speakers. “These all take place in the same room because many of the languages share not only similar vocabulary, but also cultural contexts,” Shah wrote in an email to The Herald.
Shah starts the hour by writing a simple question on the whiteboard and prompting each member of the group to respond, once in English and once in their native or preferred language. This allows students to understand each other and piece together shared vocabulary, Shah explained.
“The main goal is to create a supportive and collaborative environment in which students can feel comfortable improving their own language skills and sharing cultural connections,” Shah wrote.
Srinaath Perangur ’23, a native speaker of Telugu, attended Open Hours for the first time several weeks ago. “I don’t speak the language at college very much, and Brown doesn’t offer a Telugu course,” Perangur said. “So this is a rare opportunity.”
In an adjacent classroom, Elsa Belmont Flores, assistant director and lecturer at CLS, facilitates a discussion in Arabic between a dozen students. The group consists of native and heritage speakers, Flores’s students and those simply interested in the Arabic language and culture.
“The idea of Open Hours, as the name suggests, is a space that is accessible and welcoming to all,” Flores said. “It’s so much fun to be in this environment. It reminds me why I love teaching, why I do what I do.”
As an instructor, Flores emphasizes the benefits of learning a language outside the classroom. Whereas a class typically contains students of one level of fluency, Flores said the various levels of fluency found at Open Hours introduce “language in a more authentic way that is more reflective of our world.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Jane Sokolosky's name. The Herald regrets this error.
Benicio Beatty is a contributing writer and copy editor for The Brown Daily Herald. He is studying public health on the pre-med track. In his free time, Benicio enjoys playing with his dog Tivoli and constructing time capsules.