Brings Plenty: Language communities are uncommon yet strong

UI language departments are community-oriented and help make students feel included.


Lily Smith

The Old Capitol is seen on Nov. 25, 2018.

Maleaha Brings Plenty , Opinions Columnist

I am an English, creative-writing, and Russian major at the University of Iowa. I started teaching myself Russian when I was 14, but once I reached the grammar portion of the language, I quit because it was too difficult. However, the desire to learn this language still remained. I felt very stuck and frustrated learning it on my own, but when I registered for classes at the UI, I was ecstatic to see Russian as an option. I signed up for a Russian class without thinking about the fact that I already had all of my language credits required to earn my degree. I was excited about the opportunity to learn the language.

Once the class started, I made friends instantly. My professor made us do exercises in which we would go around the class and talk to as many people as possible. She wanted to foster friendships in the class, as she knew we’d all enroll in the same classes together for the next four years. Almost all of the friends I hang out with today I met through Russian class. I don’t know where I’d be without these friendships. Transitioning to college is a lonely process, but being in a language class gave me a sense of community from day 1.

Having the same class with someone for four years is a sure-fire way to ensure that you will be close. Not only do we have the same language classes for four years, but we also have other major-related courses for those of us who major in either the language, linguistics, or international relations. Being in such close quarters with someone for so long is a great way to become very close.

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Not only do I usually have an idea of who’s going to be in my classes each semester, but I have people I can form study groups with. Also, if I’m having trouble with the material — which happens pretty frequently since I’m studying Russian — I have people I know and trust who can either help me understand it better or will at least listen to me complain about it. Taking a language course makes college feel much less lonely.

Aside from having friends in the class, the entire department strives to make students feel included. From conversation hours to end-of-the-semester parties, language departments make sure students feel like part of a community. I’ve met people from different years through the Russian conversation hour, and talking to them inspires me to continue learning. They help me out with my language skills and prepare me for upcoming years. Knowing people in the language department reassures me there are people who have my back and are there to support me.

Some of my friends have also taken Arabic and German, and they comment on how close they are with their fellow language students. They talk about their Arabic or German friends and professors consistently. They attend conversation hours and know the professors in the department and upperclassmen. Not only is the Russian Department focused on community, but it seems that most language departments also focus on this goal. Having friends and being surrounded by a community, a family, is crucial to a student’s learning experience — particularly if it’s a difficult language such as Russian or Arabic.

When most people think of a community on campus, they might think of a student organization, sorority/fraternity, or maybe a cultural house. Most people would not think of a language department fostering such a strong sense of community among students. Language departments work very hard to make their students feel welcome, cared for, and part of something. Before enrolling in a language course, I never would have thought I’d meet some of my best friends through a Russian class and that I’d spend a lot of my time in Phillips Hall.