Student Language Exchange

by Kirsten Craig

Did you know that the top twenty languages in the world are: Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Javanese, German, Lahnda, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, French, Vietnamese, Korean, Urdu, Italian, Malay, Persian, Turkish, and Odia? Do you know where these languages are spoken? Have you ever thought about learning one?

Bengali, the seventh most spoken language in the entire world, was only studied by a total of 97 undergraduate students in the US in 2009. According to the Institute of International Education, two thirds of American students who studied abroad in 2011-2012 went to a European country. But why is this a problem?

It is a recurring pattern in our education system, and because of the United States' limited exposure to languages and cultures, students and American citizens as a whole are unable to effectively participate in social justice initiatives, academia, or even security for our own borders. In times of economic hardships or even economic growth, we are unable to communicate with potential business partners and those who need assistance. In times of economic hardships or even economic growth, we are unable to communicate with potential business partners and those who need assistance. Our scientific communities are limited to their own discoveries. In many ways, this narrow global exposure has made us unable to comprehend countries and peoples other than our own.

This past year the Student Language Exchange (SLE) was launched at Brown University with the goal of introducing students to new languages and cultures that universities do not have formal access to, which was achieved through weekly language sections hosted by student facilitators. Students engaged in hands-on lessons that covered history, culture, and grammar, and were left with resources at the end of their class to continue their explorations in their respective languages. By starting a campus-wide discussion on global issues through language interactions, SLE brought nine underrepresented cultures to Brown with even more coming this year, such as Bengali, Dzongkha, Kiswahili, Irish Gaelic, Shanghainese, and Thai.

Now that SLE has established itself as a successful platform for language learning, its team members are working hard to expand to other colleges and universities in the US to bring attention to this crisis, and in the near future, to make underrepresented languages a staple in higher education. The Modern Language Association has referred to this dilemma as "the nation's language deficit," one that SLE wants to turn around.

By bringing underrepresented languages to students, we are preparing our next generation of leaders to engage in the global conversation that modern technology allows us to have, but we are not only sharing words and phrases - we are sharing cultures. We are expanding global awareness. We want to create active global citizens who can share their own experiences and relate to those of others, but we need language enthusiasts to help us expand. If you are interested in our organization and would like to be involved, or if you would like to help us spread out story further, email


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