Why join the SLE community?
“I started out only interested in the language itself, and I had thought that the course would focus on that. I did not expect that the cultural exposure in the course would end up lighting a passion to learn the language long after the program ended. I think that is the power of the SLE model. When you get students interested in the people and the places behind a language, they can better see the object of learning that language: To connect with people they could not previously understand.”
—Mike, Brown '17, Bengali participant
“The first time I taught Swahili, we had a discussion about marriage and dowry and people were appalled at the idea of dowry. I tried to explain that it’s really just a symbol of marriage. One girl said, ‘No I don’t think it’s a symbol of a marriage union,’ and I said to her: as an American girl, if you were to get married to a guy and he said, ‘I’m not going to give you a ring because I just think it’s a material representation of our love and it’s not important’— that would offend you because rings are important in your culture.”
—Sandra, Brown '15, Swahili fellow
“I was born in the Philippines, but lost sight of my Filipino identity when I moved to the United States for middle school. I never learned Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. When I learned that SLE was offering it, I was excited to learn my native tongue. What I didn’t expect to find was a space to celebrate and reflect on what it means to come from an underrepresented culture. After our class ended, a group of us created an independent study project to take a closer look at the Filipino identity and diaspora. I also started my own social venture, Kaya Collaborative, which aims to retain social and economic capital in the Philippines by empowering overseas Filipinos to work there. I’ve discovered a connection to my heritage and experienced the power of forming communities around shared identities.”
—Rexy, Brown '14, Tagalog participant
But these values don't inform the politics of representation in media or education. Too often in the United States, Western European cultures are seen as disproportionately important and accessible while huge swaths of the world are regarded as less relevant, or "other." Education should equip students to engage both critically and empathetically with the many communities that make up global society, rather than just a few of them.
In 2004, the Modern Language Association wrote that higher education in the U.S. was “immersed in a dynamic, rapidly changing environment marked by a sense of crisis around what came to be called the nation's language deficit.” Students are not learning languages at a rate that support our nation's interests on the global stage. In fact, in 2013, 92% of American undergraduates were not studying a world language at all. And 73% of those that were studying a modern language were studying Spanish, French, German, or Italian— all Western languages.
For every 1 native speaker of French, there are 2.6 native speakers of Bengali, but for every 1 American undergrad studying Bengali in a classroom, there are over 3,000 undergrads studying French. This is one example of skewed representation of cultures in undergraduate course of study. Global society cannot make progress amidst these inbalanced conversations.
We believe in the value of every person and every language.
The Student Language Exchange exists to address this unequal paradigm, and we do it by joining forces with our international peers. Our undergraduate fellows are native speakers of languages not offered through the host university's formal curricula. With SLE support, fellows share their language and culture with other students through semester-long courses. These courses meet weekly and provide a low-pressure platform for participants not only to learn communication basics, but also to gain insight into the people and places behind the words. This is a win-win model; 100% of our international fellows reported that their SLE fellowship was a rewarding experience and that they felt empowered by their peers' interest in their culture and background.
SLE courses are exploratory learning experiences. We aim to raise global awareness and energize students to engage with their region of interest beyond the SLE course, whether through further academic study, related professional opportunities, or social justice work. We ignite this interest by building programs that contextualize current global affairs and contrasting worldviews, and by encouraging peer relationships built upon trust, respect, and cross-cultural inquiry.