Meet Amelia, Founder and Executive Director of the Student Language Exchange.
That’s a big question, and I can’t answer it in just one way. I have a different answer for each semester.
At the time of SLE’s founding, my motivation was purely cultural celebration. The original idea had nothing to do with underrepresented languages, but instead with underrepresented cultures. My family is Uruguayan, and I felt like there weren’t many opportunities to learn about Uruguay or the Rioplatense dialect of Spanish, except in shallow survey courses. In fact, I had one Brown student say, “But you’re not black? How did that happen?” It turns out she was slightly geographically challenged.
(Apparently Karen Smith attends Brown University).
Frustrated about the lack of opportunities to explore a variety of Spanish-speaking cultures in depth, I tried to start a group independent study on the Uruguayan and Argentinian military juntas. Unfortunately, I met little interest.
Our school boasts such incredible diversity. People arrive here speaking over 75 different languages, and yet only about 20 living languages are offered. And if you want to learn Arabic, you’ll be learning Modern Standard. If you want to learn Chinese, your only option is Mandarin. Many cultures are neglected, not only in language offerings but also in other courses across the curriculum. SLE was a way to bring these cultures to the forefront of the campus conversation and celebrate people of all backgrounds.
I started to realize that the importance of SLE extends beyond saying to people from Kenya, Bulgaria, and Thailand that their voice, their heritage, their language are important. We are asking American college students to redefine “diversity.” What is a “global curriculum”? How do our universities present “international studies”? And are we okay with these definitions?
My SLE experience has allowed me to start to fill the holes in the map. I have spent entire semesters learning about Kenya, Cape Verde, and Calcutta. It’s not a lot, but it’s a start.
Around this time, I started to try to teach myself Bengali. It was a slightly random decision, but I thought it was a beautiful language that would open a lot of doors. Bengal is one of the most densely populated regions of the world. The region is experiences great poverty, reports low literacy rates, and is forecasted to be host to some of the major environmental disasters of our future. I thought it was a language that would enable me to make a difference. But learning Bengali was tough. At the time, there were very few online resources, which is pretty shocking considering it is the7th most widely spoken language in the world. I ended up Skyping a tutor in Dhaka once per week to try to learn, but my experience lacked the community that a full-fledged language program could promise.
Now I’m taking Bengali with the lovely Supriya, one of this semester’s Student Language Exchange Fellows at Brown University. There, I’ve found a great community of Bengali learners that plans to continue studying together even after our SLE semester comes to a close. (And now Mango Languages has made learning Bengali free through your local library!)
We just started our fourth semester, so I don’t know how my passion for SLE will grow and develop. I’m currently researching for an SLE-inspired thesis that’s going to examine the reasons why we value some languages over others. We’ll see what I come up with.
Until then, stay tuned!
Amelia launched the organization that eventually evolved to be theStudent Language Exchange during her sophomore year at Brown University. Her passion for language study and cultural exchange inspired her honors thesis, an in-depth study of the forces that shape language study in the American university.
Read her full bio.