Project connects language learners, Chinese students

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To master a language, students enrolled in Assistant Professor Bei Yang's third-year Chinese course know that practicing their skills outside the classroom is just as important as practicing in it.

This semester, Yang decided to pilot a project that paired her students with international students from China to work together on service projects. She says involvement in these kinds of projects can not only create lasting relationships between peers, but also gives students a chance to practice and validate their language skills in non-academic settings.

"If a language learner has a chance to work on a project where they can use their foreign language, they will know that what they are learning is useful," Yang said.

She reached out to different programs like the Center for the First-Year Experience, the UW Parent program and the Wisconsin China Initiative to learn about needs that her students could help meet through their projects.

What Yang didn't immediately realize is the positive impact her students' projects would have on the international student body.

With the support of the Language Institute, which provided assistance and funding for this initiative, Yang partnered each of her students with Chinese students enrolled in English as a second language (ESL) courses, then assigned the pairs to one of three different service projects: develop advice for new freshmen from China, write information on academic and campus life for parents of Chinese international students, and post to the official UW-Madison Chinese Twitter account.

The partners met several times throughout the semester to work on their projects and to exchange conversation practice in Chinese and English. In addition to creating resources for international students to communicate with family and friends in their home countries, Yang says the partnership led to many other benefits for all of the students.

"Students practiced oral language and discussed cultural differences, all while familiarizing their partners with American culture and our campus," Yang said. "All the feedback they've given me has been very positive."

Connor Kuczmarski, a junior studying economics and Chinese, worked with his partner to tweet about Wisconsin athletics.

"It's amazing to look around and see the actual success of these projects," Kuczmarski said. "We spent countless hours brainstorming and submerging ourselves in cultural differences. This project has been a really cool experience, and going about it outside of the classroom has made it natural and fun."

Sandra Arfa, director of the ESL program, says the partnership was also positively received by the Chinese ESL students involved.

"ESL students are often isolated and have little chance to interact with American students, but by working together on a project, the students can learn from each other." Arfa said. "I am optimistic about the partnership and hope to see it continue."

Funding for this project was provided by a grant from the Language Institute to enhance language learning at UW-Madison.

Story by Nicole Hurley, Language Institute