The Language Resource Center published its full schedule for their Conversation Hours initiative last week.
The initiative offers weekly conversation sessions in 28 different languages and provides a space for students to practice their language skills, including multiple levels for higher languages in higher demand —- Spanish, Mandarin and French. Over 45 volunteer facilitators, including students, faculty, staff and members of the public, provide these services to the Cornell and greater Ithaca communities.
Wilson Kan ’26 discovered the opportunity to facilitate the Cantonese Conversation Hours when he met Emma Britton, coordinator of Language Learning Initiatives at Cornell Language Resource Center, at a freshman event during orientation week.
“Emma asked me if I spoke any languages, and I told her I speak Mandarin and Cantonese,” Kan said. “She invited me to facilitate the Cantonese Conversation Hour, and I thought it was a good opportunity to practice my Cantonese and make friends, so I got on board.”
Conversation hours facilitators lead conversations to groups of students who attend their weekly meetings.
“Last semester, we would usually have three or four people come in during our weekly Conversation hours in the evening, and it’d just be a normal conversation. We would talk about how classes are going, for example,” said Pedro Pontes-García ’26, a facilitator for the beginner Spanish level. “Now that we have changed our weekly time to the afternoon, we have seven or eight people attending one section. We often play games like Pictionary to get everyone involved and have fun.”
Suzanna Moustafa ’24, who leads the Arabic and Georgian conversation hours, facilitates more personal conversation hours since her groups tend to be smaller.
“I facilitate conversations based on the learner’s vocabulary,” Moustafa said. “I try to get them to think about what they know and how they can use it in a sentence. I mostly just ask people very basic questions and have them think through how they would answer the question in their language.”
Attendees of Conversation Hours find the dialogues helpful, whether they are learners trying to improve their speaking skills or native or heritage speakers trying to practice their language.
“I like having group conversations in Spanish because it diversifies the conversation topics and allows me to learn from other students learning the language. I also try to ask the facilitator to correct me if I make errors, which helps me improve” said Lia Sokol ’23, a Spanish minor and a heritage Russian speaker. “In my Russian Conversation Hours, the type of conversation is different because there are generally more native speakers that attend.”
Moustafa shares a similar sentiment, stating that her Conversation Hours with native or heritage speakers developed more advanced goals.
“Last semester, my students were all native speakers, and we were all able to communicate using a more advanced vocabulary,” Moustafa said. “We focused more on differences in dialect, which we don’t really do with beginners and intermediates.”
Although Conversation Hours allow students to converse with multiple speakers, some students believe they could benefit from one-on-one dialogues.
“While I appreciate the group conversations, I think one-on-one meetings would also be helpful because they would allow for more individualized instruction and more directed language practice,” Sokol said.
Nonetheless, the current Conversation Hours prove to be a more casual environment to gain speaking practice that benefits all parties.
“My favorite part of the Conversation Hours is that I can practice more,” Moustafa said. “I learned Arabic in an informal, colloquial setting, so as a facilitator I am able to help the learners pick up slang terms from me. On the other hand, I get to learn the more formal, diplomatic form of speaking that they learn through their Cornell classes.”
Moustafa noted that when students practice speaking with their peers, they do not have to worry about grades or being scolded by a professor, which relieves the pressure of academic performance and accuracy on the students.
Beyond facilitating speaking practice, the Language Resource Center’s Conversation Hours have helped bring the Cornell community closer.
“As a facilitator, I’ve been able to get to know people and make new friends,” Kan said. “Cantonese is special because most of the people who go to conversation hours are heritage speakers, so it has been a nice opportunity to get to know people with a similar background to me.”