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A professor’s dream to introduce international students to American
students and get them talking is born through Language Exchange.

English, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Vietnamese—somewhat chaotic, friendly chatter and multiple conversations fill the crowded room like the noise at an airport international terminal.

It’s 4 p.m. on a dreary Thursday afternoon in October and Masters Hall Common Room is standing-room-only. English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor Marian Wolbers nonchalantly walks in, her arms filled with bags of cookies, candy, nuts and pretzels. Her attention is on an ESL student she’s been chatting with until she looks up. Surprised and delighted, she beams with joy as she realizes more than 40 students—and a few faculty and administrators—have gathered to learn languages. “Wow, it’s great to see everyone here,” she exclaims, smiling from ear to ear.

In the fall, Wolbers initiated Language Exchange, an organization born of the desire to introduce American students to international students and to exchange language and skills in an informal setting, less pressured than the classroom.

Open to anyone at Albright, Language Exchange has no specific format, no rules and no set “leaders” who set the pace. Quite simply, participants teach one another whatever language might be of interest that day.

As Wolbers passes out the snacks, she asks everyone to introduce themselves and answer an ice breaker question just to get the conversation going. Today the question is “What kind of music from a culture different from your own do you like?”

“I like Christmas songs!” shouts Moe Hasegawa ’13 of Tokyo, Japan, as laughter erupts. Hasegawa is an exchange student from Japan Women’s University. Although the communication/journalism major had studied English for six years, she had no opportunity to speak it until coming to America in August 2009. “Having a real conversation is hard,” she says. “It’s fast and people use slang, like ‘it sucks,’” she says giggling.

At a Language Exchange session, Jung Hyon Han ’13 teaches (clockwise) Szalene Anthony ’12, Megan Mosier ’13 and Hiroaki Hori ’13 to speak Korean. Behind them a second group also studies Korean.

Language Exchange gives students like Hasegawa a place to practice their language skills as well as a place to meet American students.

“We need to foster more opportunities for ESL students to meet American students,” says Wolbers. “In America we have a huge interest in being politically correct, which means you don’t walk up to someone and ask where they’re from—they could be Asian-American and from New Jersey.”

Following the ice breaker, Wolbers and Szalene Anthony ’12, a theatre/psychology major from West Orange, N.J., turn controlled chaos into order as they assist participants in deciding who’s teaching what language. Wolbers leaves to go back to her office as four small groups form—Japanese, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. Anthony decides to join the Japanese group. “I know how to introduce myself in Japanese,” she says proudly. Anthony is also learning to speak Korean through Language Exchange.

“I think most international students are afraid to meet Americans because they don’t think their English is as good as it should be,” she says. “Language Exchange takes that pressure off because everyone is learning something new.”

For Danielle Gally ’12, who is currently studying five languages— German, Croatian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese—learning something new meant changing her major entirely. Formerly a chemistry and secondary education major, Gally realized through her involvement with Language Exchange that her true passion was in international relations, so she switched her major. Gally, who hails from Atco, N.J., plans to study in Japan in fall 2010.

She has also become close friends with Hasegawa, who is teaching her Japanese and has become her weekly tennis partner. “Language Exchange brings us all together,” Gally says. “It makes you realize that we’re really all a lot alike.”

When Wolbers initiated Language Exchange she says she had no expectations. Not only was she surprised to see how many showed up, she originally thought that she’d introduce students to one another, they’d swap contact information and set up times to meet informally. But the students want to get together as a group, not separately, Wolbers says.

“I guess it’s kind of like a field of dreams,” she says.“You build it and they will come.”

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