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Students dive into language, culture

A new summer language immersion program offered students a head start at language study and a hands-on approach to learning.

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Standing before a colorful spread of Russian foods, Katya Cotey shows her students what it’s like to sit down at a dinner table in Russia.

She points to a hearty spread of meat-stuffed buns, vegetable soups and smoked sausages and explains the cultural significance of each entrée.

Speaking only in Russian, the students gather around the samovar, a curiously shaped metal teapot, to partake in the age-old Russian tradition of tea drinking.

“Drinking tea in Russia symbolizes understanding and sharing with each other,” said Cotey, a graduate teaching assistant and a native of Kazakhstan, a country in Central Asia. “Those who sit down at the dinner table must show appreciation and respect.”

This is one of the many cultural lessons students learned in the Texas Language Center‘s inaugural Summer Language Institute, an intensive language immersion experience that allowed students to cover the equivalent of two years of language study.

For 10 weeks, 18 students powered through two semesters of language courses taught by native-speaking lecturers and graduate teaching assistants. The program, which lasted from June 1 to Aug. 15, offered courses in Russian and Vietnamese.

“These students have the wonderful opportunity to immerse themselves into a new culture on American soil,” said Nadya Clayton, a lecturer in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian studies who taught second-year Russian during the first summer session of the program. “It’s the next best thing to living abroad because they’re taught by native speakers who often visit their homeland and keep up with the culture and language.”

In addition to four to six-hour daily classes and practice sessions, the students’ daily routine included a variety of evening activities. From field trips to museums and local ethnic food markets to campus scavenger hunts, the summer institute provided a hands-on approach to language learning, allowing students to pick up words and phrases that aren’t typically taught in a traditional classroom setting.

Clayton, who has taught Russian language courses at the university for more than seven years, said the constant interaction with teaching assistants and extra study sessions are helping her students learn the language at a remarkable pace.

“I’ve seen an amazing improvement with these students. They all aced the last test,” said Clayton, a native of Moscow. “I attribute this success to the practice sessions, which is critical for memorizing and understanding the amount of material we cover on a daily basis.”

Chantel Pham, an architecture senior, said she jumped at the chance to enroll in the Summer Language Institute and study Vietnamese, a language instruction course that was canceled in 2010 due to budget cuts. Although she picked up basic speaking and writing skills from classes in her Vietnamese community in Austin, she said she needed to learn how to communicate at a professional level. After just a few weeks, Pham said she was close to attaining her goal.

“I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have learned Vietnamese without the study sessions,” said Pham, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Saigon, Vietnam. “Everyone gets equal amounts of attention and time to practice, and I never would have had this opportunity anywhere else.”

Proud of her Vietnamese heritage, Pham aspires to design buildings that embody symbols of national pride in Vietnam, write songs about the people of her homeland, and design traditional Vietnamese fashions.

Her top priority, however, is to build a nonprofit health clinic for people in need of basic health services in Vietnam. She and her older brother, who was training to become a doctor in Vietnam, came up with the idea to run the clinic together. After his death in 2010, she said she’s more determined than ever to make their dream a reality.

“I want to do so much and it’s really great that I have this chance to learn Vietnamese,” Pham said. “If this program didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be so hopeful about the things I want to accomplish.”

From building nonprofits to backpacking around Europe to getting an edge in the global economy, many of the students in the summer institute aspire to traverse the globe after mastering a foreign language.