Polyglots and perseverance: How an NU organization changed the language game

    Kate and Jack McCarter are two siblings with a love of language. Kate, a Weinberg senior, began taking German classes at Northwestern and Jack, a SESP sophomore, dabbled in Spanish. But they soon realized the classroom experience felt too unnatural and didn’t have the vibe they were looking for; they thought they could do more.

    So, the siblings founded Campus Language Connection, an organization looking to take language learning beyond the classroom. According to the McCarters, the goal of CLC is twofold: help students become competent in a foreign language and build a unique community that appreciates cultures. Kate said academic classes failed on both counts.

    “I felt intimidated,” she said. “I never wanted to speak. I never really participated. I wasn’t comfortable using [the languages].”

    Other times language classes just didn’t fit into a schedule. That was the case for Jack, who had studied Spanish abroad but didn’t have an outlet to practice the language at NU when he couldn’t find time for a Spanish class.

In her junior year, Kate recruited her brother in her mission to start a program that had a basic premise: students indicate a language they wanted to learn, and they’d see a list of people who spoke that language. Then the students could meet up to practice their languages in conversation. The group had the support of NU’s Global Languages Initiative (GLI), which helps students foster an intercultural and multilingual education.

    “We knew we had something there. We didn’t really know what it was,” Jack said. “We weren’t sure how well it was going to work. I was really worried it just wasn’t going to get off the ground.”

    The biggest problem the McCarter siblings ran into was matching students based on desired language and proficiency level. There was no guarantee that the students would pair with native speakers of their chosen language.

    Because of these complications, the original group fell apart when Kate left to study abroad. One night she got a devastating text that the group would be disbanded, as it lacked sufficient support from the NU community and did not have consistent participation from members.

    “We didn’t have good backing,” Kate said. “I did have the GLI, but I hadn’t put much thought in it. That was really disappointing. I started crying. I thought it was just over at this point.”

But Kate and Jack didn’t abandon CLC. Instead, they transformed it. When Kate had spent a year abroad in Germany as a junior, she participated in a program where she could learn German in a more intimate context. Her experiences gave her a more conversational grasp on the language, a skill she said her classroom experience never afforded her. When she returned to NU as a senior, Kate emulated the program in Europe in her revival of CLC.

 Under the new model, which kicked off October 2015, participants complete a profile indicating their desired language,  as well as their majors and hobbies. Then, Kate and her brother pair applicants with a native speaker of the language the other wants to learn. This new method of pairing students, they said, will form more compatible matches.

    The new model gained support from the NU community that the first iteration lacked. Jack said that by partnering with the Northwestern International Office, CLC has credibility that attracts a greater pool of applicants. Undergraduates are participating, and so are graduate students, Ph.D candidates and spouses of the NU community.

 The McCarters said they hope this expanded community will lead to a cultural exchange, breaking down stereotypes and introducing students to new perspectives that will draw the NU community closer.

    Even before the kickoff, Kate received emails from participants expressing their eagerness to join the club. The wife of an NU student wrote Kate to tell her how excited she was to make friends through CLC.

 “It almost had me in tears,” Kate said. “It validated that what I was doing was worthwhile.”

 In the first hour after they launched the CLC website in October, 90 students had joined. Two weeks later, more than 180 students had signed on. The native speakers are fluent in 23 languages, including Punjabi, Russian and Turkish. Students have expressed interest in learning 21 languages, from Afrikaans to Icelandic.

 There are still challenges with this new model. For one, the McCarters have chosen to accept applications on a rolling basis, so not every student may match with a partner immediately. There are also too few native speakers of Romance languages such as Spanish, French and Italian, and not enough people who want to learn Korean and Mandarin.

 Christine Schlaug, a Weinberg sophomore, joined CLC in hopes of pairing with a Spanish speaker, but not enough applicants were fluent in the language for one to pair with Schlaug. She still expressed interest in the program, opting to pair with Kasia Fiszer, a Polish speaker, even though Schlaug has no experience with the language.

    Despite her inexperience, Schlaug said she enjoys being paired with Fiszer. Schlaug, who studies Linguistics, uses the meetings as an opportunity to study the language-learning process first-hand. Fiszer uses CLC uses the pairing to practice English in a comfortable, conversational setting.

    “To hear that process and sort of help [Fiszer] along the way is really cool for me to do,” Schlaug said.

    Fiszer is not an NU student, but has accompanied her husband, Marek Fiszer, from their native Poland to Evanston while he studies in Kellogg for the second year.  While joining CLC has bolstered Fiszer’s English skills, her husband believes Fiszer’s meetings with Schlaug have had other, unintended benefits.

    “She’s drawing on confidence in speaking English, which is even more important because you have to be able to speak up when you’re asked, when you’re in unusual situations,” Marek said. “That’s typical for foreigners speaking any language, you’re afraid of speaking because you’re afraid of mistakes, being not understood.”

    For Fiszer, the McCarter’s program has provided more than a chance to practice a new language. Fiszer speaks enthusiastically and freely, relaying her experience with CLC without looking to her husband or Schlaug to supplement her English.

“Speaking with a native speaker like Christine, it’s better because the melody of the language is different in Poland and it’s different in the US,” Fiszer said. “For me, to meet Christine was the best part of CLC.”

    Editor's note 1/7: The first paragraph was edited for clarity. See the accompanying letter here.


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