Implement language education dorms
BACK TO BASICS
Published: Sunday, May 20, 2012
Updated: Sunday, May 20, 2012 20:05
I have often felt that both the student body and the administration devalue the importance of learning a foreign language at Brandeis. University graduation requirements mandate the equivalent of three semesters of foreign language proficiency, enough to apologize to a native speaker for your limited vocabulary and American accent.
Upon meeting the requirement and discontinuing language study, students proceed to forget almost everything that they learned and are left with a skeletal knowledge of the language.
The importance of being proficient in a foreign language cannot be overstated. Yes, it’s true that English is a global language, and we can expect to find English speakers almost wherever we go. But, as a result, we need to be linguistically and culturally accommodated while abroad. Without the knowledge of a foreign language, we are relegated to the role of the tourist whose hand must be held while exploring another culture. Even in Anglophone countries, where Americans may feel most “at home” while abroad, the cultural history is often based in a foreign language. Canada’s history is partially based in French, much of Wales primarily speaks Welsh, and I was thrown for a loop in Ireland when my cousins broke out Irish Gaelic, the country’s first official language.
Given the importance of language proficiency, it’s very concerning that the few brave students who decide to continue language study beyond the three-semester requirement are provided with minimal resources outside the classroom to facilitate their development.
As a student of French and Spanish, I have found this lack of support frustrating. It seems that, as my language class is dismissed for the day, so is my ability to improve my speaking skills.
The only opportunities that I know of outside the classroom are film nights run by Undergraduate Departmental Representatives approximately once a semester, which are insufficient to really foster language development.
Having recognized this problem, Prof. Bernadette Brooten (NEJS) offered some thoughtful solutions to the administration last March, during University President Frederick Lawrence’s Inaugural Symposia, in her essay titled “Let Brandeis Sound Like the United Nations.”
My favorite suggestion of hers is the creation of language dormitories, which are residence halls in which all residents sign a pledge to speak a common foreign language. They’re commonplace at other universities, easy to implement and, most importantly, a logical method to encourage language proficiency.
Language dormitories are a frequent arrangement at several other reputable colleges around the country.
Tufts University, Boston University, Brown University, the College of William and Mary and the University of Massachusetts Amherst all offer some form of language immersion residence halls—usually in several different languages including Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Arabic and Chinese. Cornell University even hires international graduate students to live in the dormitories as native speakers.
To create a language dormitory, the Department of Community Living would need to cordon off a section of a residence hall, find a Community Advisor or similar authority figure who is a native speaker of the assigned language and locate interested and capable students to live there.
Creating these dormitories should not contribute to the current housing shortage, as they would merely be organizing students with a common interest who plan to live on campus in the same location. The only potential obstacle, depending on the number of residents participating, would be the cost of specially assigned CAs.
There would undoubtedly be numerous benefits from a language dormitory. Students would be able to build their foreign language skills in an informal environment with similarly motivated peers. Given the amount of time that some students spend in their dorms, it would be close to an immersive experience, especially if the hall had several group activities that encouraged dialogue.
These group activities, potentially led by the CA, would allow students to learn about the culture associated with the language, such as film and food, in a more intimate and accessible setting than what has been provided in the past by UDRs.
The dormitories could also serve as an alternative for students who are interested in improving their language proficiency but do not have the time or resources to study abroad. For instance, science students often express an interest in studying abroad but are unable to do so because of requirements for their majors during the year and lab work during the summer.
For these students, participation in a language dorm would be ideal, as it fits naturally into their schedules: Students always have to return somewhere in the evenings.
I’m confident that students would take an interest in a language dormitory.
Although it may not be prudent to create dormitories for every language offered at Brandeis, dormitories in Spanish and Hebrew would likely generate the most interest early on, given both languages’ current popularity on campus.
It would be worthwhile for the Department of Community Living to consider implementing language dormitories as an option for students. Brandeis needs to more strongly encourage language growth and development among its students. Providing a space for extended language immersion would be a valuable step toward this goal.