“I think the uniqueness of the [Student Language Exchange] (SLE) program is that its a low-key and casual environment that is supposed to pique a person’s interest in the language and give them a glimpse into the culture of the place,” Saisha Srivastava ‘18, a SLE fellow who teaches Hindi wrote in an emailed statement about the newest org at Vassar. SLE is the Student Language Exchange that was started last year at Brown University by a student. SLE strives to teach languages at another level. Rather than simply offering another hour and a half lecture to students’ schedules, SLE creates a learning experience by adding cultural significance to everything taught.
“Students who teach their own languages also bring in the culture they come from,” Elene Metreveli ’17, Vassar SLE’s Campus Coordinator, said. Fellowship Coordinator Molly James ‘17, added, “And also, we’re lucky that we have the self-instructional language program, which has Swahili, Swedish, Turkish, Hindi, Portuguese, Yiddish, and one other.” Irish and Korean are also included in Vassar SILP. “And those aren’t traditional classroom learning, and that’s the closest thing that we would have to what this program is trying to do.” This semster, Vassar SLE is offering Brazilian Portuguese taught by Kira Dell ‘15, and Hindi taught by Saisha Srivastava ‘18.
The program’s basic focus is on underrepresented languages and cultures on college campuses that don’t have access to a formal academic setting. These languages are picked up by native speakers, or at the very least, highly proficient fluent speakers who are also undergrads. The peer-to-peer learning, then, stimulates a more friendly environment, as stated by SLE’s Mission Statement. It also recognizes, Srivastava wrote, that not everyone wants to have to dedicate all of their time and energy into fully learning a language. Rather, she said, “its a place people can get the ball rolling, kind of like an exploratory learning community.”
Director of Evaluation and Continued Engagement for Vassar SLE, Tamsin Yee Lin Chen ‘15, agreed that the SLE program is vital to understanding underrepresented cultures. “Yes, I could more easily find the resources to learn French, the other official language of Haiti… but just 5 to 10 percent of the Haitian population is bilingual in French and Creole, while 90 to 95 percent speak Creole exclusively!” She wrote in an emailed statement. “SLE hits home for me precisely because it recognises the significance of languages like Haitian Creole.”
In their Mission Statement, SLE Founder, Amelia Friedman said, “Nelson Mandela once said, if you speak to a man in your language, it’ll go to his head. If you speak to a man in his own language, it’ll go to his heart.” As the leader of the on-the-ground program management of volunteers from the Vassar community and members of Chermaitre, a rural village in Northwest Haiti, Chen wrote, “I cannot overstate how important I think speaking the local language is in building mutual trust and understanding in development initiatives.”
Metreveli explained, “The main point is that we teach languages that are not usually taught in an academic setting.” This means Spanish, German, or French are all off-limits to the SLE fellows. James added, “At other universities they’ve offered Cantonese, and Vietnamese, Malay, things like that.”
The fellows have a lot of freedom when it comes to what they want to share with their students. “It’s really dependent on what the fellows want to teach and how they want to structure it,” James said. “They make lesson plans every week on what they want to cover, and when we were having out in-person training with the fellows, they were like ‘oh, we really want to talk to our students and see what they’re interested in. Like, why did they want to take this language? Why did they want to learn about this culture?’ And then, address that and make it really specific for the people in their classes.” Srivastava wrote about her Hindi class, “I actually had fourteen people sign up for mine. Others have even more.” Metreveli said she was able to catch up with Dell after her Brazilian Portuguese class. “She had the most signups, twenty-four signups or something, so most of them showed up,” Metreveli said. The classes are taught in Chicago, so the classroom, Metreveli laughed, was very full. “It went really well. She actually brought Brazilian cake or candy or something like that.”
The inclusion of different cultural aspects in these language classes are the main difference between SLE and any classes or SILP that Vassar offers. For Srivastava, coming up with lesson-plans is the most exciting part of being a fellow. “So I sent out an email today with some different options because I want to craft the lessons around what people want from them,” She wrote. “I’m pretty sure it’ll involve a lot of swear words. And chai.”
This year, Chen taught alongside native Haitian Creole speakers to teach a group of 10 Vassar Haiti Project members before they went to Haiti. “It was also incredibly valuable to have students of Haitian backgrounds be a part of the learning process to share with us the cultural nuances and specificities that we would simply never come across in a textbook,” She said.
The process of bringing SLE to Vassar’s campus took much longer than anyone anticipated. “It was difficult getting funds from Vassar, which is weird,” James mentioned. “We applied to get a pre-org last semester and then they rejected it for a very odd reason, but then we applied to the president’s fund, and we got the grant for Dialogue Across Differences.” Metreveli added, “That’s why we’re starting this late. I actually started to bring SLE in the beginning of last semester, even spring semester, that was when I started contacting Brown. But finances are what kind of pushed us here, but we’re fine.”
Metreveli had the idea to bring SLE to Vassar’s campus in the first place. “Tufts started it last semester, and my best friend goes to Tufts, and in one of the Skype calls it just came up,” She explained. “She’s on the board there, so she was just telling me about this program, and was like ‘Wow, this is so cool!’” From there, Metreveli contacted the central SLE office at Brown and brought the program to Vassar.
The trouble with financing had to do with the cost of materials, James explained. Most of the funding that Vassar provides goes back to Brown. The fellows at Vassar offer their teaching as volunteers. “But we also have some money for ourselves for printing or getting snacks,” Metreveli said.
Once they had funding, SLE wasted no time finding language fellows. “There were emails going around for this program for a while during its inception and programming,” Srivastava wrote. “I think one of the language fellows sent it to me because I study Chinese on campus.” After submitting the application, she added, “This was followed by a questionnaire, interviews, training sessions, they really made us jump through the hoops to make sure they thought we could do this.”
James and Metreveli agreed that they wanted to make sure their fellows would do justice to the SLE program. “Lioba Ungurianu, she’s the head of the self-instructional language program, and we’ve asked her for help and advice on just choosing fellows when we interviewed some of the students who wanted to teach their language,” James said.
Additionally, they used the guidance of Professor of German, Jeffrey Schneider, to help with training. “We have two types of training to be a fellow, one is online training, which comes from central SLE Brown office, and we have in person training, like coordinators, like co-executive board, Metreveli said. “It’s a chill process,” She added.
After it’s delayed initiation, Vassar SLE has run into an additional hitch. Next semester will prove to be a rough transition period. “I’m abroad, our communications person is abroad, and two people are graduating,” James explained. “So Elena’s going to be the only one who’s left in the fall.” In addition to James and Metreveli, there is a Program Manager, Communications Coordinator, and a Director of Evaluation and Continued Engagement. “So we’re recruiting people for our exec board,” Metreveli said. “There are these four positions open, and we’ve also started recruiting new fellows for next semester.”
All things considered, the future is bright for Vassar SLE. “Sometimes you just want to check a language out and get the feel of it without having to commit to a whole class, or take a course, or do drill sessions, you know?” Srivastava wrote. “This is basically exactly that. Its like the free sample piece of cake in a little cup you get outside the bakery before they lure you inside to buy the cheesecake. And I have a feeling people are going to want to buy the cheesecake.”