November 8, 2007

Language House Fosters Cultural Experience

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Cornell students have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a foreign language without ever having to leave Ithaca. Students with an intermediate knowledge of Arabic, French, German, Japanese, Mandarin or Spanish can choose to live in Boldt Hall’s language houses, a part of the Alice Cook House on West Campus.
Students live in the language houses in order to become fluent in the language of their choice and to learn more about the culture of the various places where their target language is spoken.
Mike Magdovitz ’10 called the Language House “an interesting place to live,” saying that although he lives in the French part of the house, he also has the opportunity to practice his Spanish on a daily basis.
According to Language House Director Hongnan Ma ’01, who is working toward her Ph.D, residents must speak their target language “whenever they encounter each other” in the house.
To ensure that this goal is maintained, each language is staffed by a native speaker and a faculty fellow. The native speakers are either undergraduate or graduate students already fluent in the target language.
The native speakers’ job is similar to that of a resident advisor, except that they do not discipline their residents.
Zeynep Soysal, the French native speaker, called her job “an incredible position,” adding that it is “great to bring together people who are interested in the same things.”
Together with their faculty fellows, who are professors in the target language or culture, the native speakers plan programs for their residents once a week.
These programs include movies, lectures, hikes and concerts, during which all participants must speak in the target language. Usually the programs center around the culture or food of an area in which the target language is spoken.
For example, the French speakers have baked crepes and the Mandarin speakers have attended lectures in the Asian Studies department. As Soysal said, “There are so many opportunities. Anything goes!”
Once a month, each language group holds a program for all the other language groups. In October, the German speakers held a Pumpkin Carnival and Oktoberfest for the residents, which featured pumpkin-carving and German food and dancing.
In addition to programs, each native speaker hosts four dinners or brunches per week for their residents and anyone else looking to practice the target language.
Another highlight of the language house is the trip most languages make each year to a city where their target language is spoken. This year the Arabic speaking residents are traveling to Dubai over spring break and the Mandarin speakers are planning a trip to China for a week during winter break.
Soysal said the French speakers will travel to New Orleans to volunteer with Hurricane Katrina victims, as well as visit the French sites in the city.
Language house programs are open to anyone on campus looking to practice a language or learn more about a culture. In particular, the Language house’s events are advertised to the rest of the Alice Cook House.
According to Carl Steidel, assistant dean of the Alice Cook House, the language house “is as much a part of our community as any other building in the House.”
He also noted that language house residents interact with the students living in Cook “on a daily basis” in the dining hall and common areas.
Soysal said that she is glad her residents feel comfortable enough to come to her when they are unsure of how best to say something in French.
“It’s great that they are not scared to ask me questions. I open my dictionary about twice a day, and their French is definitely improving,” she said.