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With every language, a world

At World Languages Day, U instructors keep a valuable program going strong

By Adam Overland

Origami 165
Students learn the Japanese art of Origami at WLD.

May 4, 2010

Scandinavian Vikings and rap music might seem unrelated to the untrained ear and eye, unless one considers the fashion tendencies of recent reality TV pop culture icons. But on World Languages Day, at least one U instructor will draw a connection, albeit an anachronistic one.

World Languages Day (WLD) is an outreach effort that introduces mostly metro-area high school students to the many language opportunities at the U. This is the seventh year that instructors from the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) will come together to inspire high schoolers—students who may very well be on their way to the U.

More than 80 language instructors, most of them P&A staff, will join together on May 18 to teach short, 40-minute language introductions to 1,000 teens from area high schools. At that pace, it's almost like wooing the students with magic, and an attention getting title like Lena Norrman's course, Sweden: From Viking Raids to Rap Music, is just the sort that jams a classroom full of curious young learners.

Norrman recognizes the value in WLD, and so even though funding for the program was unavailable this year—she, like most of the instructors—has returned. This is her fourth year with the program. She's come back, she says, because "it fulfills a good mission. Hopefully, they will apply to the U."

Norrman starts her course with a lesson in Swedish, moves to a little Viking lore, and then dispels the stereotypes of blue eyes and blonde hair by talking about the diversity in Sweden, ending in contemporary times with the popularity of hip-hop and rap. "You have to find an angle," she says. "I try to make it fun in the classroom. Being a teacher is like being a full-time performer."

More than words

For Hanna Zmijewska-Emerson, a lesson in language is about far more than words. This year, she'll be teaching The Face of Modern Norway. Beyond teaching the language, she shows students slideshow presentations, demonstrates a short conversation in Norwegian, and familiarizes them with geography.

"It's more than language, and that's inline with what we do here [at the U]" says Zmijewska-Emerson. "I don't think it is possible to teach without the culture context—otherwise, it's just words."

A student account of World Languages Day
Teran Pederson-Linn attended World Languages Day and now works in the Language Center as a student worker. In a blog entry about her experience, she writes that it influenced not only her decision to attend the U, but to pursue a minor in Italian and to study abroad for a summer in Lecce, Italy. She writes:

"The opportunity to leave my humble town of 80,000 people to venture into Minneapolis was not something to be turned down. Little did I know that what I thought to be a chance to get out of town (and class) for a day would be the catalyst that helped me to realize experiences in life of which I wanted to be a part."

During Zmijewska-Emerson's regular classes at the U, even contemporary issues come into play. "Health care, welfare benefits, and the educational system—they are of great interest to students, and now that we also talk about how Norway is changing with the fairly rapidly growing number of immigrants, they also want to learn more about that," she says. Indeed, the Somali population in Oslo is nearly as large as the Somali population in Minneapolis. "They are the two of the largest Somali immigration centers in the world," she says.

All the more reason a political science major, for example, might take an interest in Norway and immigration, or a heath sciences student may learn more about government provided health care. Not surprisingly, notes Zmijewska-Emerson, students are also very intrigued at the idea of free tuition in Norway for anyone wishing to attend a university.

"We whet their appetite to show them there is so much to talk about and so much to learn. But we also want them to know that Scandinavia is…you know…cool. We've been talking recently about rap in Norwegian—although it's not my kind of music," she says. Apparently, Sweden hasn't cornered the Scandinavian market on rap.

It's not all Scandinavia

Beyond Scandinavia, almost 60 additional courses during WLD will tell a diverse story. April Knutson, for example, will teach Haiti: History and Mixed Cultures and Languages, while Kenichi Tazawa will invite hands-on learning with Origami: The Japanese Art of Paper Folding (watch a video of Tazawa's 2009 WLD class learning Origami).

Another way to say hello

Instructor Zhen Zou is returning for his seventh year of teaching at World Languages Day. He'll teach Instant Chinese—a course that has become so popular, he says, that they must limit the number of students. "I think it's very good outreach for CLA and for language departments," says Zou. "We have students who came to the U to take Chinese because of the WLD Instant Chinese course."

Zou says American students are often intimidated by the apparent complexity of the Chinese language. And so he works quickly to overcome this prejudice. "I show them that Chinese characters are not hard to write—the structure is very simple: part signifies the meaning of the character, and part signifies the pronunciation," says Zou. After teaching writing, Zou teaches students simple greetings and introductions. "Once I teach it, I ask them to use it immediately in class, so by the end of the 40 minutes they can introduce themselves and greet each other," he says.

Even current U students get involved during World Languages Day. Zou still fondly recalls running into a graduate student at the U who had assisted him two years earlier during WLD. Remembering him, the student introduced herself—in Chinese. "She said "nǐ hǎo" ("hello," written 你好) and I was surprised," says Zou. "After answering her, I asked, 'So you speak Chinese?' She answered, ’I learned it in your WLD class, when I was assisting you, remember?’" A simple, friendly greeting can go a long way.