(April 29, 2011)

Contact: Rick DelaHaya, Centenary News Services, 318.869.5073

College campuses add language immersion programs

By Sherry Shephard and Icess Fernandez, Courtesy of USA TODAY

SHREVEPORT, La. — Next fall, a group of 10-12 students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will live together in a dorm dubbed the Russian House.

Throughout the semester, they will speak, read, watch TV and pretty much do all their communicating in Russian.

Pauline Turpin
Pauline Turpin, of Lille, France, works on decorations for her dorm room at Centenary College in Shreveport, La. Everyone in a wing of the dorm speaks only French. (By Val Horvath Davidson, AP)

"The idea is that we are creating a little bubble for them of Russia on the Madison campus in a supportive environment," says Diana Murphy, associate director of the Russian Flagship Center and Language Institute.

Colleges and universities nationwide are creating and expanding existing language immersion programs, under which students live together while learning a language around the clock.

Dustin Cowell, who teaches Arabic at Wisconsin-Madison and is chair of the Department of African Languages and Literature, says foreign-language immersion programs are effective because the language becomes a part of the students when they use it to express their feelings or to talk about ordinary, everyday activities.

"It's language beyond the classroom and it increases your vocabulary," Cowell says. "To try to tell your friends about something that happened that day becomes much more personal."

Cowell says the immersion program allows students to put up their antennae and think about what they are saying.

"The first time you might not have said it very well, but you start thinking about different ways to say it," he says. "Every time you say something, you're focusing on that elocution."
Among the other programs nationwide:

James Hall
T.L. James Dormitory, at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., houses Le Quartier Francais, a wing dedicated to French language and culture. (By Greg Pearson, The (Shreveport, La.) Times)

  • Centenary College in Shreveport, La., launched a French immersion program in 2010 on a floor of a dorm it calls Le Quartier Francais.
  • Emory University in Atlanta has a Spanish House and a smaller German program.
  • The University of Virginia has a French House, Spanish House, German House, Russian House and the Shea House, which includes Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Italian, Japanese and Persian.
  • The Thatcher Language House at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst provides students with an opportunity to live in a residence hall dedicated to learning Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish. A designated floor is provided for each language.
  • At Middlebury College in Vermont, its language department includes a School of Hebrew.

"We add languages all the time when we feel there is a need," says Michael Geisler, vice president for Middlebury's Language Schools. "We have had Arabic for a while and we have a thriving and growing Middle Eastern program. Arabic is one of the languages spoken in that region and Hebrew is the other."

Andy Wilson, director of residence life at Emory, says there are some native speakers who live in the house as well as people who are trying to acquire fluency or proficiency.

"The program differs from year to year as to the community standards about speaking Spanish in the house," Wilson says. "Some years Spanish is the only language spoken in the house and then there are other years where English is allowed during certain hours."

Among the students participating in Centenary's French program is senior Alexandria Pittman, who wants to travel to France and teach English after graduation.

"It's hard," she says of speaking only French in the dorm. "It's like splitting my brain into half."

Despite that, Pittman says, she loves the dorm, and both her French and her knowledge of French culture have improved. She attributes a lot of that to her roommate, Pauline Turpin.

Turpin is an exchange student from the Catholic University in Lille. She signed up to come to school in Louisiana through a partnership Centenary has with her school.

"Every time I said I was going to Louisiana, people said 'They speak French there,'" she says with a smile. "But they don' speak French."

Wisconsin-Madison also has an Arabic, Persian and Turkish Language Immersion Institute. It runs an eight-week summer program from mid-June to August. Arabic was the program's first language in 2004. Persian was added in 2005 and Turkish in 2010.

"The students are not supposed to use a language other than the language they're studying for the eight-week period," Cowell says, "On Friday nights, they are released from the complex for about 12 hours and they can use English."

At Emory, Wilson says, the more immersed the students get, the more they get out of the program.

"The more willing they are to have restrictions on their ability to speak their first language, the more likely they are to leave the program with more fluency and more knowledge about the culture," he says.

About Centenary College of Louisiana

Centenary College is a private, four-year arts and sciences college affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Founded in 1825, it is the oldest chartered liberal arts college west of the Mississippi River and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Centenary is one of 16 colleges and universities constituting the Associated Colleges of the South and has been recognized as "One of the Best 373 Colleges" by the Princeton Review and one of "America's Best Colleges" and one of "America's Best Private Colleges" by Forbes.com. In 2008 Centenary College celebrated 100 years in Shreveport and Bossier City.