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Peer-to-peer language program engages students

Published: November 21, 2014
Section: News


As an initiative implemented to provide students with access to languages not normally taught at Brandeis, the Student Language Exchange Program is a unique asset to the Brandeis community. Elyse Jackson ’16, publicity manager for the program and fluent in five languages herself, attests that learning a foreign language can not only help you forge new connections, but “it can motivate you, and change your own perspective.” Jackson is pursuing a major in East Asian Studies with a minor in International and Global Studies.

Currently, Brandeis offers classes in 13 distinct languages, ranging from traditional Romance languages such as Spanish, French and Italian to Biblical Hebrew, Yiddish and Arabic. However, for students wishing to gain cultural and practical exposure to languages beyond the limitations of the Brandeis curriculum, the SLE program currently offers sessions in Vietnamese and Cantonese, while next semester it will be offering Armenian and Swahili as well.

SLE is different from other established programs on campus in that it allows international students to teach a foreign language to their peers. Other programs which foster cultural bonds and language exchanges, such as the English Language Learning Initiative and the Language and Cultural Enrichment Program, typically rely on native English speaking undergraduates to provide tutoring services to members of the Brandeis and greater Waltham community, such as dining and facilities workers and students at Kennedy Middle School in Waltham.

According to Jackson, the international students who lead the weekly class sessions are given the title “fellows.” Each session begins with formal instruction from the fellows, and concludes with interactive methods such as games and music clips to reinforce newly learned vocabulary and other concepts.

Over the course of high school, Jackson, who was homeschooled, studied eight or nine languages. During the summer after her first year at Brandeis, Jackson embarked on an eight-week intensive language program stationed in China. Currently a junior, Jackson is fluent in five languages: Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, French and Cantonese.

Excelling in mastering foreign languages, Jackson explains “the way I learn every new language is through colors.” Languages such as French are unique in the sense that the gender of each word must be taken into consideration, so Jackson associates masculine nouns as blue and feminine nouns as pink. Verbs on the other hand are labeled as green, while languages that do not entail gender specific nouns are associated entirely with one color regardless of the part of speech. For instance, Jackson associates Japanese words with the color blue.

Beyond her mechanisms to learn multiple foreign languages simultaneously, Jackson suggests learning a new language in parts. “I try not to overwhelm myself at first. I take grammar first and try to learn the structure of a language. I then try to incorporate new vocabulary, and from there I try to listen to myself and grasp the hearing part,” she states.

SLE often incorporates current music into the lessons as well, aiding students to retain the knowledge and vocabulary introduced each week.

Jackson further attests that fluency in a foreign language is becoming an increasingly marketable and highly desired skill to corporations and businesses looking to hire. “It presents so many opportunities for you in the future, with employers stressing that students develop knowledge of another culture and language” she reveals.

Comprising about 30 students currently, Jackson hopes to expand the outreach of the SLE program and encourages her peers to take advantage of this unique opportunity. Although the semester is nearly finished, she explains that this should not deter interested students from joining either the Vietnamese or Cantonese lessons. Resources are posted online and those interested are advised to contact either Jackson herself directly at edj2012@brandeis.edu or the president of the program, Miriam Wong, at wongwm@brandeis.edu.