Promoting Less Commonly Taught Languages

A few years back I started a little project to support the speaking and sharing of less commonly taught languages on our campus and I thought I would talk about it here. I didn’t think it was anything “blog-worthy” until a colleague of mine at a large R1 school heard me talk about it and reply “Oh my gosh, that is awesome, I am totally stealing that idea.”  So…here it is 🙂

Over the past couple of years we have had a sneaking suspicion that our incoming classes were becoming more linguistically diverse, that is, students were entering the college speaking languages in addition to English. What we didn’t know is that we had available data on this and just needed to access it. The Common App, which our school uses, has a series of questions that asks applicants questions about language use at home. Up until recently we had never actually “harvested” that information,  but after working with Admissions we gained access to this database. And it is a treasure trove of interesting, and yes confidential, information.

We also knew anecdotally, that there were faculty and staff who spoke a variety of languages even though their primary language of instruction was English. This information was one of the primary motivations for creating a tool called ObieMAPS. ObieMAPS takes our curriculum as well as our faculty’s profiles and, instead of parsing them in the usual discipline-centric way (English, Sociology, Theatre, Spanish…) it looks at them through the lenses of timeperiod, geographic location, key words and languages. 

How else could we have imagined that there are 8 faculty/staff on our campus who self-identify as being proficient in Dutch? Or 4 Bulgarian speakers? or Chichewa?

At the same time we have students returning from study away who have begun to learn languages we don’t “officially” support. Each year we have students coming back to campus who want to continue practicing their Swahili, Czech, Swedish, Dutch and other less commonly taught languages.

And add to this as well the fall frenzy of Fulbright, Watson and other grant applications. These are all programs that look for students with an interest and ability in languages other than English.

So what did we do?

Students who were applying for grants after college (where proficiency in another language would be beneficial) were instructed to contact me. So far I have been contacted by English speaking students interested in learning about Greek, Dutch, Czech and Korean language and culture.

I searched ObieMAPS for faculty and staff with those language proficiencies and gave those names to the students.

I accessed the info from the Common App and then wrote a personal email to the student who self-identified as a speaker of ones of these languages and asked whether they would be willing to get together with someone on an informal basis and share information. I made it clear this was not a formal language class.  I made it clear that this was meant to be social and collaborative (many of the students where from abroad and the US was new to them…as was life in a US college). To my delight, each of them said yes. One student (a first year who is a Dutch speaker) sought me out (unbidden!)  and said he would love to get together with others because he was afraid of losing his language when here.

Enter the coffee gift card. Once the pairings or the groupings (in the case of Dutch…we have about 5 people  there, and about 6 for Czech…) were created, my office paid for $25 gift cards at the local coffee shop for them to get together and eat and chat. The only requirement is that I get periodic updates about what they learned. And then I replenish the card.

The American student wanting to go to Greece and the student from Greece met this weekend and discovered they were both in International Baccalaureate programs at their high schools, and had a great time comparing notes on why they made those choices and what they learned. The Dutch group (made up of students, faculty and staff) is meeting tonight… I wouldn’t be surprised if the Netherlands 2015 Eurovision entry eventually becomes a topic.

We also have a program here where faculty can host students for lunch once a month. One of our Comparative Literature teachers hosted a small group of students in order to converse in Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian (BCMS).

A first year student from Prague was contacted by voice majors from our Conservatory to help them with their pronunciation when singing in Czech….I will coordinate the get togethers (just to make sure we are mindful of her time) and provide treats. She has also met students who have returned from Study Away in Prague and want to practice their language a bit. When we last met she said she was absolutely delighted to have been approached and recently said to me “I had no idea anyone here would even care that I was from Prague!”

Just this morning I got this lovely email from the person leading the Dutch group.  It made me smile.

I was a little worried about how our first meeting would go: would people show up? Would it be strange or awkward for a small group consisting of everything from native speaker, to those who know not a word but were curious of Dutch, to everything in between? Would conversation seem forced? Would we run out of things to say?

I am happy to report that my worries were unfounded. The first meeting was amazing. We had two native/heritage speakers (American-born children of Dutch nationals), two Americans who learned Dutch (myself and one student), and two people who are traveling to Amsterdam for Winter Term and are simply curious to learn some Dutch and acclimate to Dutch culture. At the end of the hour when I had to leave, the rest of the group decided to linger. And when I asked how often we should meet, and suggest “elke maand?’ the group all replied, “elke week!”

Anyway, the point of this project is  definitely not to overwhelm or objectify the members of our community who speak languages other than English. These get togethers have to have benefit for the speaker as well as the learner (and that benefit has to be more than just coffee and treats!). They are not formal classes, no credits are accrued, but learning does indeed happen.

Feel free to steal this idea, and/or share one of your own for promoting LCTLs on your campus!  🙂


Featured image: the Official Seal of the City of Brooklyn, NY, with Old Dutch inscription  “Eendraght Maeckt Maght”  or “Unity Makes Strength.”  via Wikipedia   and pronounced here





Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: