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Living a Language on Campus

February 05, 2010

  • Anna Tapfer CAS ’10 in German dress
  • Rebecca Feldman CAS ’10 and Emily Scroggs CAS ’11 (background)
  • Festive food in the German Residential Language Community

With the tantalizing smell of pirozhki (dumplings filled with meat and vegetables) filling the air, a small group of students pile around the television to watch the Russian cable channel. They talk about the day’s events and their weekend plans—all in quick, proficient Russian; English is strictly banned.
These students are among the first participants in Lewis & Clark’s new Residential Language Communities (RLCs).

Celestino Limas, dean of students and chief diversity officer, along with representatives from the Office of Residential Life and the Department of Foreign Languages, initiated the RLCs as part of the college’s themed housing options. Students sign a one-year commitment to immerse themselves not only in a foreign language but also in the culture of the countries that speak it.

This year’s pilot program includes a Russian-speaking community, a German-speaking community, and two French-speaking communities. The program, which is open to students of any major who have completed their first year, is based in West Hall.

“Although we can’t transport our students back and forth to places like Moscow and Paris, we can still do things on campus to create a microcosm of an immersion experience,” says Limas.

The program is particularly useful for students interested in overseas programs that have a strong foreign language component. The RLC can assist students in the sometimes difficult leap from the classroom to full immersion.

Another goal of the RLC program is to bridge the gap between academic and residential life. With faculty involvement, the quasi-immersion that the RLCs offer becomes an extension of the curriculum. Faculty members from the foreign languages department review applications and select students. They also work with participants to create a syllabus for the experience.

“In learning a language and studying a culture, full immersion is the single most powerful and efficient tool,” says Katja Altpeter-Jones, assistant professor of German and faculty advisor to the German RLC. “The RLCs offer that immersion experience on campus. When in their RLC, participating students are
in a German-speaking world.” If the program proves successful, more languages may be added in the next few years. And that’s welcome news to students.

“It’s a very practical experience to keep speaking in Russian, even at 2 in the morning when you can barely think straight,” says Ella Antell CAS ’12. “As with any new endeavor, there’s a learning curve, but fortunately the Russians have a saying, pervi blin komom—the first pancake is always a blob.”

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