By Setota Hailemariam
For Unwind magazine
St. Mary’s Hall may look inconspicuous to the uninformed eye. Squeezed between the Health Center and McKeldin Library, the building is overshadowed by its neighboring attractions.
However, St. Mary’s Hall has its own unique purpose: it is the main facility of the Language House, an immersive program at the University of Maryland where second-semester freshmen and above can live in an environment devoted to learning and studying a language of their choosing – Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Russian, or Spanish. Though the program, founded in 1989, may be new, it has earned a reputation as being one of the most intriguing programs on campus.
Unwind magazine caught up with a few residents of the Language House to get a feel for who makes up the multicultural program.
Yuval Reiss, 24 – Hebrew Cluster
Q: How long have you been speaking Hebrew?
A: All my life. I’m a little different from everyone here…you know, you have target languages – the language that you’re trying to learn in each cluster – but I’ve been speaking it since birth.
Q: What do you like most about the Language House?
A: A lot of the reason I’m in the Language House is to retain – in America, when I live here, it’s hard to retain the Hebrew, you use English so much…things start getting forgotten. I love that I can be able to speak and help others speak and use my language in the Language House.
Audrey Wilke, 19 – Spanish Cluster
Q: Can you talk about some of the clubs or activities they have here?
A: We have a Tai Chi club here, which is really cool because Dr. Liu [program director] runs it. We have other events also, like the Progressive Snack. It’s in the beginning of the semester and each cluster has to make two foods and decorate their apartment in a theme. Everyone goes to each other’s apartments and has a plate with them, you get a little bit of this food and a little bit of this food – they’re supposed to be something you would eat in the country where the target language is spoken. It’s kinda like going around the world…also it’s great to meet other people.
Q: What would you say to people who are thinking of applying to the House?
A: It’s definitely a commitment. It’s hard to come home when you just went to class all day, maybe you’re working a job – you’re tired, you don’t wanna have to think in another language. You don’t realize how easy it is just to speak until you have to do it in a language that’s not your first language. But it gets easier and I think if you really want to improve and be in a community where other people also want to learn a language, it’s a really great place for that.
Matthew Berger, 21 – Chinese Cluster
Q: What fascinates you the most about the Chinese language or the culture?
A: It’s so much different than English. The language itself, the way they speak is completely different. Their language is tonal, the sentence structure and grammar are all different, the character writing system – it’s just so much to learn right at first, so it almost seems impossible. But by and by you start to learn more and get better at it.
As for the culture, I think the way Chinese people carry themselves and how friendly they are towards strangers and other people is so much different than American culture. I’d definitely say they’re friendlier and more helpful.
Q: Have you ever visited China?
A: I spent a semester there last spring. I studied in Chengdu, a city in Southwest China – pretty big city. Great time.
Joshua Phinny, 26 – Arabic Cluster
Q: What made you want to join the Language House originally?
A: I thought it was a great program. I’m able to speak the language with fellow language learners…we have mentors living with us who actually correct our speech -that’s beneficial to any language learner. Of course, we make mistakes…our mentor is not always around, but when he is, he’ll give us advice and write words on the wall.
Q: What would you say you like most about the Language House?
A: It’s being around people who share that interest of learning a language and learning about a culture and experiencing it. Of course, nothing can really replace a real environment of being in the country and speaking the language, but it helps keep your mind focused – along with your classes, because you have to write in the target language – so that’s been a big benefit to me.
Stop by the Language House one day and see the language immersion experience for yourself. Who knows, you might learn a few things too.