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Students Dive into Language, Culture

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Standing before a colorful spread of Russian foods, Katya Cotey shows her students what it's like to sit down at a dinner table in Russia.

She points to a hearty spread of meat-stuffed buns, vegetable soups and smoked sausages and explains the cultural significance of each entrée.

Speaking only in Russian, the students gather around the samovar, a curiously shaped metal teapot, to partake in the age-old Russian tradition of tea drinking.

"Drinking tea in Russia symbolizes understanding and sharing with each other," said Cotey, a graduate teaching assistant and a native of Kazakhstan, a country in Central Asia. "Those who sit down at the dinner table must show appreciation and respect."

This is one of the many cultural lessons students learn in the Texas Language Center's inaugural Summer Language Institute, an intensive SLIlanguage immersion experience that allows students to cover the equivalent of two years of language study.

For 10 weeks, the students power through two semesters of language courses taught by native-speaking lecturers and graduate teaching assistants. The program, which runs from June 1 to Aug. 15, offers courses in Russian and Vietnamese.

This summer, a diverse mix of 18 students will have the unique opportunity to fulfill the university's foreign language requirement that mandates two years of foreign language courses for most undergraduate majors.

"These students have the wonderful opportunity to immerse themselves into a new culture on American soil," said Nadya Clayton, a lecturer in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian studies who teaches second-year Russian during the first summer session of the program. "It's the next best thing to living abroad because they're taught by native speakers who often visit their homeland and keep up with the culture and language."

In addition to four to six-hour daily classes and practice sessions, the students' daily routine includes a variety of evening activities. From field trips to museums and local ethnic food markets to campus scavenger hunts, the summer institute provides a hand-on approach to language learning, allowing students to pick up words and phrases that aren't typically taught in a traditional classroom setting.

Clayton, who has taught Russian language courses at the university for more than seven years, says the constant interaction with teaching assistants and extra study sessions are helping her students learn the language at a remarkable pace.

"I've seen an amazing improvement with these students. They all aced the last test," said Clayton, a native of Moscow. "I attribute this success to the practice sessions, which is critical for memorizing and understanding the amount of material we cover on a daily basis."

Chantel Pham, an architecture senior, said she jumped at the chance to enroll in the Summer Language Institute and study Vietnamese, a language instruction course that was canceled in 2010 due to budget cuts. Although she picked up basic speaking and writing skills from classes in her Vietnamese community in Austin, she said she needed to learn how to communicate at a professional level. After just a few weeks, Pham says she is close to attaining her goal.

"I know for a fact that I wouldn't have learned Vietnamese without the study sessions," says Pham, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Saigon, Vietnam. "Everyone gets equal amounts of attention and time to practice, and I never would have had this opportunity anywhere else."

Proud of her Vietnamese heritage, Pham aspires to design buildings that embody symbols of national pride in Vietnam, write songs about the people of her homeland, and design traditional Vietnamese fashions. 

Her top priority, however, is to build a nonprofit health clinic for people in need of basic health services in Vietnam. She and her older brother, who was training to become a doctor in Vietnam, came up with the idea to run the clinic together. After his death in 2010, she said she's more determined than ever to make their dream a reality.

"I want to do so much and it's really great that I have this chance to learn Vietnamese," Pham said. "If this program didn't exist, I wouldn't be so hopeful about the things I want to accomplish."

From building nonprofits to backpacking around Europe to getting an edge in the global economy, many of the students in the summer institute aspire to traverse the globe after mastering a foreign language.

Students enrolled in the Moscow Plus program will soon have the opportunity to flex their new language skills overseas. Created in 2002, the summer program provides students with intensive five weeks of study in Russian language followed by five weeks of study in Russia. After completing the first session of the Summer Language Institute, the students will spend the last five weeks of the program in Moscow.

Clayton, the Russian language lecturer, says she will never forget her first experience speaking English with an airport attendant in the United States. She hopes her students enrolled in the Moscow Plus Program, will feel that same sense of empowerment when they study abroad.

 "It's an amazing experience that can lead you to another world, a better world," Clayton says.

In addition to language fluency, the curriculum and evening activities focus heavily on cultural etiquette, such as using proper informal and formal greetings and showing gratitude at the dinner table

"There's this famous saying that I like to tell my students, ‘you can not bring your code of rules to someone else's monastery.' Clayton says. "If you want to be a part of the global world, you cannot do it without playing together with other cultures."

The first step toward true understanding of Vietnamese culture is gaining knowledge of the language, said Hoang Ngo, a lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies who teaches first-year Vietnamese in the summer institute. By listening to music, watching films and reading poetry, he said students gain a greater awareness about a country that is opening to the world.

"More Vietnamese people are living in the United States and more Americans are going to Vietnam for various purposes," says Ngo, a native of Nha Trang, Vietnam. "The more fluently Americans speak this language, the more they will understand its people. Then they can understand a truth that we are friends, not ever opponents."

Although the U.S. government has identified Vietnamese and Russian critical to national security, few Americans are proficient, says Tom Garza, associate professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies and director of the Texas Language Center.

"We're really taking the university's motto ‘What Starts Here Changes the World' to heart," Garza says. "We want to empower students by giving them the credentials to carry out this motto by speaking the world's languages."

Costing $1,500 for students living off campus and $3,700 for students living in the dorms, this is one of the least expensive summer language programs available nationally, Garza says.

In the future, Garza hopes to expand the program by including more languages, such as Czech, Modern Greek and Portuguese. He also plans to create "language clusters" in the Dobie Center, where students can live on campus with their fellow classmates and a teaching assistant.

"This is a new way to concentrate our resources during these hard economic times," Garza says. "If we can bring students to fulfill their language requirement in a summer rather than two years, we're giving students a competitive edge and helping the budget out too." 

By Jessica Sinn
College of Liberal Arts