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You speak what? Student groups offer language practice, cultural awareness

By Linnae Stole '10
November 24, 2009

St. Olaf seniors Leanne Barck and Jay Walker help spread the word about Conversacoes.

Weekly conversation tables sponsored by the various St. Olaf language departments provide students with the opportunity to take their developing skills out of the classroom and into a real-life setting. But what about students who speak or have an interest in a language not offered through the college?

A number of students across campus who have studied abroad in places such as Brazil, Thailand, and Korea have taken it upon themselves to maintain their language skills through the development of their own language tables and unofficial classes.

After graduating from high school in 2005, Leanne Barck ’10 deferred her St. Olaf admission for a year and traveled to Brazil through Rotary International. Once she arrived at St. Olaf she sought out other students familiar with the Portuguese language and formed a Portuguese conversation table.

Officially sanctioned through Student Activities, Conversacoes: The Language and Culture of Brasil meets weekly for lunch and conversation in Portuguese. Members of the group also will occasionally meet to watch Brazilian movies, listen to Brazilian music, or make Brazilian fudge, called brigadeiro.

Knowledge of Portuguese, notes Barck, is not a requirement to participate. “We are an open group that shares an appreciation for Brazil, as well as traveling and foreign cultures in general,” she explains. “Not everyone who attends our conversation table even speaks Portuguese -- they're interested in learning and pick up what they can.” A lot of teaching takes place, she adds.

Regular participants have a wide background of familiarity with the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture. One person lived in Brazil for seven years, several have studied there for a year on a Rotary exchange, a few taught themselves Portuguese, and one person speaks Spanish but has Brazilian friends back home.

Marcia Barck ’10 shares her sister’s interest in language, having spent six months in Thailand through the intercultural program AFS in high school. She also spent two-and-a-half months there living with a Thai family while on St. Olaf’s Term in Asia last year. She and a few friends with a similar interest try to meet weekly for dinner and conversation in Thai. Besides oral communication, they are also working on developing skills in reading and writing. In the future they hope to coordinate with some of the Thai students on campus for continued practice.

Marcia Barck advises students with an interest in foreign language to “find a study-buddy, or two or three. It helps to have someone to whom you are accountable and with whom you can speak the language. Also, Olaf has many foreign exchange students or full-time students from abroad who are wonderful resources.”

Back from Korea
Though he has been chair of the Korean Culture Association (KCA) for two years, it wasn’t until he spent last semester at Korea’s Yonsei University that Mark Hammond ’10 had any exposure to the language. Since his return to the states, the KCA has been working to develop a language program for interested members.

Hammond notes that Assistant Professor of English Jennifer Kwon Dobbs has helped the group immensely in their ventures this year. “[She] really took the initiative to coordinate students’ interest in pursuing Korean language studies,” he says. “She sets our curriculum, provides the class materials, and leads the sessions. [She] has been an invaluable source of support and direction for us.” A few students involved in KCA come from Korean-speaking homes, so they also assist with the language classes.

The KCA has grown from around seven members to upwards of 20 over the past three years. Participants come from a wide variety of backgrounds, including Korean adoptees, Korean nationals, first-generation Korean-Americans, and those of non-Korean descent. The group has recently teamed up with the office of Multicultural Affairs and Community Outreach (MACO) and Harambee, an umbrella group for multicultural groups on campus. Hammond hopes that these campus connections will make the possibility for events and awareness easier to coordinate as the group continues to establish itself. In the future, members of the group hope to establish a self-sufficient language club or program with a designated tutor.

“The KCA and language program we are developing are inclusive,” he says. “We're trying to bring about opportunities for students to learn about a different and relevant culture that often is lost in the shadows of other Asian cultures.”

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or