Dorms make global diversity hit home

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February 1, 2011

6:07 PM

Upon entering the German House, the first thing you see is a bright, silhouetted mural of Cologne, one of the oldest cities in Germany. The German flag is painted proudly on the opposite wall, surrounded by the coats of arms of each German state.

Like those in the other language houses, the painted murals are intended to invoke a sense of cultural appreciation. In the Russian House, classic images of Russian fairy tales adorn the walls. In the French House, there are children’s cartoons like Babar the Elephant.

The College of William and Mary supports eight language houses: Russian, French, Spanish, Arabic, German, Italian, Chinese and Japanese. Each is devoted to surrounding its residents with the culture of their chosen language.

“The language house program provides a unique language and cultural immersion environment,” Laimir Villaescusa, the Spanish House tutor, said. “The students don’t have to travel to experience a different culture.”

While many residents enjoy the house’s cultural aspect, the close-knit communities that form in most of the houses also contribute to popular interest.

“The sense of community is definitely there. There’s really nothing like it,” Ashlin Ross ’12, a Russian House resident, said. “[It’s] an environment you won’t find anywhere else on campus.”

Each house is provided with a tutor who is a native speaker of the house’s particular language. The tutors hold conversation hours, which allow them to speak one on one with students of all language levels. In addition, each tutor is responsible for keeping up the cultural atmosphere of his or her house, thus immersing the students in the traditions of whichever country they are studying.

“The most important thing the tutor does is create the cultural atmosphere,” Iryna Hniadzko, the Russian House tutor and a Russian professor, said. “They also need to provide language exposure, but the cultural aspect is definitely most helpful for the residents.”

Some tutors, like Hniadzko, are professors as well, which allows them to act as yet another tool for language house residents. Others, like Maguelone Esparcel, the French House tutor, and Anna Rapp, the German House tutor, are involved in exchange programs. As their residents are becoming better acquainted with French or German culture, they are using their language houses learn about America.

“I study English in France and want to be an English teacher,” Esparcel said. “I figured that being a language house tutor at William and Mary would be a good compromise: It would be a first step to teaching, in a very light way, while having the chance to taste the atmosphere of American colleges.”

In order to fully immerse their residents in their houses’s, tutors play movies relevant to their countries and hosts themed events. Villaescusa, for example, has regular noches de poesia — poetry nights. Rapp sets up coffee hours, a German tradition.

Cooking is also a very popular tool for tutors, since it allows students to learn specific vocabulary and become familiar with traditional foods.

“We have cooked so often that, besides the very complicated Russian recipes, there’s nothing left to make,” Hniadzko said. “It’s great because it lets the students sit down and eat together, so they talk and have that added bond.”

Of course, the language houses attract many students who desire to become familiar with their chosen country without having to study abroad. The added benefits of living with a tutor, other native speakers and classmates who are taking the same classes allow them to pick up on the language more quickly.

“You have a built-in study group,” Ross said. “Chances are there’s going to be someone else in your Russian class, and that makes it so easy to study for tests and stay motivated.”

The benefits of language house residency extend beyond the college campus. For students who wish to study abroad in the country of their particular language house, knowing the culture thoroughly is a definite advantage.

“The language houses are a good first step to knowing another culture more deeply,” Esparcel said. “It can be a help for those who are a bit afraid of going abroad; it might trigger their curiosity to go… and help them [know] what to do or say.”

For students interested in a career in government or international relations, knowing so much about a language, especially critical languages like Russian, Arabic, Japanese and Chinese, can help with job opportunities later on.

“It definitely looks really good when a student who wants to go into international relations or some government career knows so much about a foreign culture, especially a culture that Americans are dealing a lot with today,” Hniadzko said.

Language houses offer a variety of benefits for students, from cultural immersion to preparation for future careers, while still providing a strong sense of community.

“The house is a very social place to live, and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to call home,” Ross said.
The deadline for applications to live in a language house has been extended to Feb. 3.

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