Exploring Language and Culture Around the Globe
On a given night at the Brewer-Hegeman Conference Center, one can hear a mix of languages spoken from its classrooms. That is the satisfying sound of the Community Language School.
The University of Central Arkansas outreach program offers foreign language classes to students, employees and community members. During the summertime, it hosts Bear Camps, welcoming children from ages 5 to 13 for weeklong deep dives into a new language.
“People take these classes to engage people on a familiar level,” said David House, the Community Language School director and a lecturer of Japanese at UCA. “Even if it means being only able to say greetings or ask simple questions, speaking in another person’s native language means you’re meeting someone on more positive terms. That can lead to a new friendship or make a difference in a professional setting.”
Created in 2007, the Community Language School started as a program exclusively for elementary students and offered courses including Arabic, French and Mandarin. At the time, children in the area had few options for foreign language education because many, if not most, elementary schools lacked those classes. UCA sought to address this education gap and encourage a more multilingual society and cultural understanding.
According to the Journal of Child Language, there’s a reason why children outclass adults in their ability to learn new languages, as the adolescent brain begins developing its memory capabilities and passive learning skills. This makes childhood the sweet spot to learn the rules of a language.
The Community Language School has evolved over time. The program introduced classes for adults, and the ever-changing demand of offerings has made some languages more popular than others. Now, it offers a robust catalog of online classes — largely developed because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and has pivoted its classes for elementary-aged children to interactive summer camps.
The Bear Camps are never ones where children sit still. During the 2022 summer camp, children had options in Japanese and Korean in largely regimented days. Mornings were dedicated to exercises to warm up the minds of campers with physical activities connected with a culture, whether it be a Japanese dance, singing a popular Spanish-language song or a game of Red Light, Green Light — a nod to the popular Korean-language Netflix series, “Squid Game.” Everything the children partake in is meant to encourage speaking the language and connecting it to practical aspects of that culture.
“We often show videos of children, a similar age to the camp goers, exploring their native countries and saying the greetings and phrases,” said House. “As our students speak these same words, we want them to connect with this new culture.”
Through this engagement, students learn about the aspects of life in another country that may seem familiar and the wondrous parts that are quite different: an introduction to their school life, the cuisine, traditional festivals and forms of entertainment.
The camp ends with students presenting crafts they made, ranging from Day of the Dead masks to traditional crowns from the Korean Silla Dynasty. They recite the colors of the rainbow in a new language, write their names in a different alphabet and use simple phrases. By the end of the week, the campers leave using their newly learned version of “rock, paper, scissors” in another language, no doubt engaging their parents and siblings in endless sessions of fun back home.
Year-round, adults gather for classes for an hour-and-a-half a week for 10 weeks.
“The reasons why people enroll vary,” House said. Sometimes students pick up a language out of a prior interest in the culture, such as influence from a popular K-pop musical genre or Japanese anime. Some are current UCA students who wish to be able to reach out to a friend or classmate among the university’s sizable international community, while others want to enjoy a new hobby or reach out to others in a society that is increasingly multilingual.
“Given that over a fifth of U.S. house-holds speak a language other than English and that the percentage of Hispanics in Arkansas has grown tenfold in the past 20 years, offering affordable, convenient language and cultural programming is important,” said Katelyn Knox, the associate director for the School of Language and Literature.
“Ultimately, the Community Language School is about opening doors for people to make a positive impact on others,” House said.