Bridging Cultures with Language

About a dozen people seated in small separate groups, scattered throughout the room, were deep in conversation. There was occasional laughter—and if you listened closely, you heard a jumble of languages. This was a session of the Language Exchange and it was—happily—just as I imagined it might be. Presiding was Educational Skills Professor Charlotte Brown, who founded the Language Exchange three years ago. She reported on it at one of my faculty meetings not long after. Her goal, she said, was to allow non-native speakers of English practice their English while those studying a language such as French or Chinese or Japanese could practice those languages with native speakers. The hope was that the Exchange would attract enough local and foreign born individuals to satisfy the ambitions of all who entered. And so here they were: a group of three, including students from India, South Korea and Vietnam, trying to master American slang; a duo, one American the other Korean—each practicing the other’s native tongue; and a group of four—practicing English and Japanese. There were more people at this particular session than the usual six or eight, but their demographics were the same: students, staff and faculty—even FIT’s “senior scholars”—those non-degree seeking older students who audit FIT classes. At one point on this evening, a staff member walked in and found a Korean student to simply translate a document for her.

Recently, our Cultural Fellows program began sending two fellows to each session. These are either international students or students with extensive international experience. Warm and empathic, they are vested in making our international students feel at home at FIT.

What particularly pleases me about the Language Exchange is the way its sessions act not just as casual, low-risk language-learning opportunities but also as real cultural exchanges. In fact, that is what attracted a number of the participants. Indeed, Nao Fukaya, from Japan, wanted to meet diverse people from all over the world. Fluent in English, she has picked up some Korean and wants to learn Spanish. She joined a group of four, some of whom were interested in practicing Japanese—and were also interested in the culture, for which she was happy to serve as a resource. Daetchen Reljic, an American-born daughter of Serbian and Dominican parents, was seated with young women from Turkey and China. Speaking English, they, too, found the experience a great opportunity for learning about other cultures. Hang Wang, a fashion design student from Hangzhou, China said it best, I thought, when he simply commented that language “allows you to know a culture better.”