Benvenuto a Barnard!
When I was a sophomore in high school, my Spanish teacher introduced my class to a language learning app that was released only a few years ago called Duolingo. She had my small class download the app, add each other as friends, and play with it for the rest of the period. I don’t believe my classmates have touched the app since that day (we’re still friends on Duolingo), but I am, as of writing this, on an 154 day-streak (and counting!).
I’ve started eight different language courses and finished four (though I can remember maybe one word in French and my Danish is laughable at best), to give you some insight on how much I enjoy learning languages. All of this said, even though I think Duolingo is a great app (I swear this blog post was not secretly sponsored by Duolingo), an online course with a cute green bird can’t hold a candle to complete language immersion by way of speaking and listening to native speakers and other students.
Enter Barnard and Columbia, which together offer 54 different languages from Swedish to Swahili. As a Barnard student in particular, you don’t have to be tied to just one language: since the requirement is only one year (two semesters) of a foreign language, you can easily learn one language one year and start an entirely new one the next year. During my first year, I took Chinese. Although the class was by no means an easy class (5 credits!), I did finish my first year with a relatively good grasp on the language for only having studied it for about eight months. By far my favorite thing about being in a Chinese class at Columbia was the structure between the students and our professor. We learned some very specific phrases, like the four arts and the numbing hot taste specific to Sichuan cuisine, as well as the best, most authentic places in New York City to get various regional Chinese dishes. Especially with Chinese being a language with a set of characters completely different and unlike the ones used in my native language, I learned so much in this classroom course than I ever would if I tried to study Chinese on my own.
The following year, I decided to change it up entirely and enroll in Italian because I hope to study abroad in Italy during my junior year. Since Barnard’s study abroad requirement is generally the intermediate level of a language, I decided to take the intensive version of elementary Italian, which certainly lives up to its name. As a proficient Spanish speaker, I thought this would give me an advantage in any Italian class I took in college. While that may not have necessarily been true (a word of caution to all Spanish speakers who think they can fake Italian just because they know Spanish: the languages are sometimes very similar, other times very, very different), I still found my experience in Italian thus far to be a lot of fun. My professors in the department have been incredibly helpful, supportive, and eager to talk about Italy, from the food to the people and the history. Our classes are often supplemented with songs, from nursery rhymes about trees to love ballads and one I found particularly funny about a bathtub. Like my Chinese class before, my Italian class offers an immersive experience where professors will speak only in the target language and encourage students to do the same. While it can seem a bit daunting and even frustrating at first, I’ve found it helps me acquire far more vocabulary, pronunciation skills, and confidence, which will be particularly important if I do get to go abroad.
All of this sounds nice, but what about if you don’t want to continue taking a class beyond the year-long requirement? Perhaps you need space in your schedule for some major requirements or particularly interesting electives and need to cut the Spanish (or whichever) class out of your schedule. If you’ve taken two years of the language before, you can apply for a Language Maintenance Tutorial (LMT) through Columbia’s Language Resource Center. The LMT is a not-for-credit course where you’re matched with a Columbia graduate student to practice your target language over ten 90-minute sessions. In a typical semester, there are around 37 different languages with available tutors. Since these sessions are one-on-one, it allows for a lot of personalized interaction with your tutor.
If you’re looking for something a little less intensive, one of my favorite non-class resources for language learning on campus is “Coffee and Conversation” (Café y conversación at Casa Hispanica, Caffè e conversazione at the Italian Department). Language departments at Barnard and Columbia offer at least seven different conversation hours, including Spanish, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Yiddish, and Catalan, which meet once a week (except for Yiddish and Dutch, which meet once a month) and often offer free coffee and snacks to students who decide to show up. Anyone from the Barnard and Columbia community can go to these conversation hours, regardless of whether or not they are taking a course in the language or what their level of proficiency is. Each department has its own setup for conversation hour: Italian conversation hour is run by Italian graduate students at Columbia, while Spanish conversation hour last semester was a bit more informal and run by a Columbia senior studying Spanish and education. Some conversation hours have set topics for the session, while others will be completely unstructured with students talking about anything which comes to mind (at Casa Hispanica last semester, some of our self-selected conversation topics included forms of governance and the importance of voting to what we like to do when it snows, all in Spanish, of course). For me, I really enjoyed being in a lower-stress Spanish conversation environment, especially because the area of my Spanish I want to most improve is my conversation skills.
Generally speaking, one of the best things Columbia and Barnard’s language departments have to offer is a more intimate environment: since classes are typically capped at 15-18 students for language courses (some courses have the cap set even lower), there is a lot of one-on-one interaction with professors, along with a lot of class time devoted to speaking in smaller groups. In my classes, I have gotten to learn so much about language and the culture surrounding them; I now truly understand the French proverb, “You live a new life for every new language you speak.” Whether your motives for learning a new (or familiar!) language at Barnard are to reconnect with a family history, to study abroad, live as many lives as possible, or even just to fulfill that language requirement, there are an abundance of resources available to make acquiring that language possible.