For the past 40 years, students participating in the University’s Summer Language Institutes would enjoy class time together, learning the beginner and intermediate levels of a foreign language for eight weeks. Students earn 12 credits for eight weeks worth of work in most languages, with the exceptions of Arabic and Chinese for which the beginner and intermediate levels are separated. Simultaneously, students are typically able to spend quality time as a group outside of the classroom, appreciating the culture of the language they are studying, ranging from culinary classes to spending time with native speakers in the Charlottesville area. But this is no normal year.
The University offers these eight-week intensive courses in seven languages — Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Latin, Russian and Spanish. These are near-immersion programs, where participants would spend the summer in Charlottesville and pledge to only speak the language they’re studying in order to learn more effectively while also developing cultural and linguistic fluency. Students attend class from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and then from 1 to 4 p.m. five days a week, with additional time spent in the evenings for cultural learning. In class, participants practice listening, speaking, reading and writing skills in a small, student-centered environment.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the SLI has had to overcome many barriers such as the lack of in-person instruction and student interaction, as well as the inability to host beloved events like cultural language dinners. This summer, all classes are taking place over Zoom and the program has been forced to forego or modify some of the cultural lessons of the class.
For example, the Spanish SLI students would typically cook dinner together every Wednesday from a culture that they were studying and spend quality time speaking the language together. The group would also share lunch together every Friday and reflect on their week, bonding as a class and again speaking only in Spanish to further hone their skills. The other language programs had similar traditions.
Joel Rini, Spanish professor and director of Spanish program, explained that the group camaraderie is really what’s missing this summer.
“These are … the aspects of the SLI that are really mainly affected,” Rini said. “Not so much the course content, not so much the instructional quality, but the stuff that really makes us bond as a group.”
Although lacking such important aspects of the program that allow students to better understand and immerse themselves within the shared cultures, SLI has still been promoting a sharing of cultures and languages despite a time of racial division within the country.
Hannah Park, rising fourth-year College student and participant in the Chinese SLI, explained the importance of understanding other cultures and ways of life.
“I feel like right now with everything that’s going on, there’s a lot of division and a lot of people not understanding where other people come from,” Park said. “Language kind of breaks down that barrier where you’re able to kind of see and understand things that are not culturally familiar to you, and I feel like that’s a really useful and important skill and attitude to have.”
Shu-Chen Chen, assistant professor and director of Chinese SLI, shared a similar sentiment — language and culture are an important part of understanding others and society in both part and in whole.
“Even though the immediate effect of learning a language well is hard to achieve, because it does take a lot of time … it’s the process that counts,” Chen said. “The process of understanding, communication and appreciation is what counts. It will bring students long-term benefits.”
The SLI overall hopes to bring people together, to foster community and encourage a greater sense of mutual understanding.
“At a time like this it’s still very important to learn a language,” Chen said. “By learning the language you get to appreciate the differences and similarities as well as culturally speaking, how there are similarities, how there are differences and so learning a language is also learning to understand.”
Brian Ullman, assistant director for operations of summer and special academic programs, elaborated on the importance of internationalizing one’s undergraduate student experience.
“It’s a global world … it’s important to expose oneself to different viewpoints, languages, cultures,” Ullman said. “It’s all part of what makes a better person and citizen — and by that I mean employee, spouse, neighbor, community member of all kinds. A lot of these things come from language and culture learning.”
One unforeseen benefit of the new online format this summer is that it has allowed students to learn language remotely. This has afforded students who may not have been able to move to Charlottesville for summer classes the opportunity to participate in a unique and rewarding program. This year’s SLI boasts students from several different Virginia universities, as well as some high school students.
Stefanie Parker, assistant professor and director of the German SLI, explained the benefit of allowing students outside of Charlottesville to participate in the program.
“We have one student joining us from Kentucky and so I think that’s kind of neat, how some just sign up because it is actually taught online and not on campus,” Parker said. “So that’s like a little silver lining, you know.”
Although students are lacking many of the traditional cultural components of the SLI, professors and tutors are trying to ensure students still experience and understand the values of other countries through watching movies, enjoying cultural food and hearing from native speakers. Many hope to be back in person next summer, likely with a new appreciation for spending time together and enjoying the culture as a community.
“It was really heartwarming to hear how dedicated each of these directors is to ensure that the students are getting the academic content that they should be getting,” Ullman said. “There’s a long standing tradition of the summer language institute, but there’s never been a summer like this where everything is done virtually. So the discussions were profound in terms of what do we need to do to ensure that this experience is going to be consistent with what we’ve offered in the past.”
Students and professors alike are making the best of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing protocols that are in place as well as the opportunity to better understand other cultures and languages this summer.