The spring of 2014 was my last semester at Brown and also with the campus’ chapter of the Student Language Exchange.
This semester our great group of fellows taught Dutch, Malay, Serbo-Croatian, Kiswahili, and Tamil. They spent months working hard to bring the basics (or even more than that) to the students who came to learn! This semester all of our language sections tackled big vocabulary projects on subjects such as family, food, history and conversational staples, as well as adding in immersive experiences, like turning their classroom into a Malay restaurant, touching Tanzanian kanga cloth, or eating Dutch chocolate. We also faced the perennial attendance problems that come with trying to manage our language sections around busy student lives. As always, the dedication from the students— those who are sharing a language and those who are learning it— impresses me. During my year and a half with SLE it was the commitment that the students on campus made to learning a new language and broadening their intellectual, cultural, and global horizons that made grounded the work that we do.
Joining SLE helped me bring into focus certain things about the way education, both at Brown and in mainstream American university culture, is structured. For me, as a history major, I first noticed the disparity between the number of courses in European and American (widely and fully represented) history versus Asian and African history (sparser offerings). The languages offered on campus fell prey to the same problems, with languages spoken in Europe or the Americas being more prominent than others. When SLE started a Kiswahili project, there were no other African languages being offered on campus. In the few years SLE has operated at Brown, we have given students the chance to learn languages that are widely spoken, culturally rich, and underrepresented in colleges (sometimes all three).
I wanted to be a part of SLE because it was another facet of the language education work I had done in the Providence community, where I had been working as an English teacher with local adult immigrants. The learners there were trying to strengthen the connections they had to their new country by studying the language that America spoke. SLE offered the same kind of connection, the kind that comes from understanding language and culture together, for places all around the world with which students on campus wanted to be more in touch. By doing this work, SLE enriches the intellectual life on campus. It is a great way for students to encounter a language in a structured way with a prepared instructor, giving them a better chance to actually learn and understand a new place.
One of the last things we did as a team was to interview students who wanted to share a language as fellows this upcoming semester. The number of applicants and the diversity of languages that they speak and wish to share are always exciting. Even though I will not be on campus to see it, the people who will return to SLE at Brown are a dynamic group who will continue to offer students new opportunities to connect with languages and cultures.
Nicole is a senior History major and has also studied Spanish and Portuguese at Brown. She works with the Swearer Center for Public Service teaching English and has also been a part of Brown’s SLE team since January 2013.