More than 700 Wisconsin Students to Attend World Languages Day

CONTACT: Wendy Johnson, 608-262-1473,

UW News — MADISON – For some of Laura Koebel’s students at Plymouth High School, “ethnic” food means a Hawaiian pizza. So an excursion to an East African restaurant such as Buraka, on State Street, is the perfect way to cap off their trip to World Languages Day.

Now taking place each fall, the annual World Languages Day attracts some 700 students from 27 Wisconsin high schools. The ninth World Languages Day, presented by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Language Institute, will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 18, at the Memorial Union, 800 Langdon St., and the Pyle Center, 702 Langdon St.

Through nearly 50 class sessions on language learning, storytelling, skits, cinema and music, students are exposed to many diverse world languages and cultures. More than 30 languages are represented in these sessions, from familiar languages, such as Spanish and French, to those more ancient or distant, such as Yucatec Maya and Xhosa.

“We always say that language and culture are inextricable,” says Wendy Johnson, outreach coordinator for the Language Institute. “You can’t learn a language deeply without understanding the art forms and the history that are important to the culture. Language is always sort of about everything.”

This year’s offerings include many hands-on sessions, featuring fashion, dancing and foods from other cultures. “Speaking Swahili Through Your Clothes” shows how the brilliant kanga wraps of Kenya and Tanzania spread messages to families, friends, enemies or political groups. Lovers of Asian cultures will thrill at “Godzilla in Japanese: King of Monsters and More,” with a (slightly) serious look at the monster and what he means to the world. And if the day sounds too hectic, “Ancient Tibetan Chants” mixes meditation with mantras.

But students aren’t the only ones learning new things. Sessions for teachers show how to add more international flair to everyday lectures or prepare students for UW-Madison’s undergraduate language requirements.

Organizers can point to many reasons why exposure to languages is so vital. Some students may enjoy learning about their own roots, as with sessions on Viking history, or bone up on cooking their favorite cuisines. Others may wish to travel abroad, either for a brief vacation or an extended sojourn, and enjoy traveling off the beaten path.

With ever-increasing globalization, many students also find that World Languages Day introduces them to cultures that now exist side-by-side with their own.

“World Languages Day shows students that these languages are alive and well in Wisconsin,” says Johnson. “You don’t necessarily have to travel that far to learn a bit of Tibetan, meet native speakers and delve into their world.”

Now in her second year at UW-Madison, Kadie Ray attended World Languages Day twice while a student at Poynette High School. The variety of languages she encountered during World Languages Day cemented her desire to attend UW-Madison. Following her high school graduation, she attended a program in Jordan, quickly realizing that not everyone in her group could continue their study of Arabic back home. She has not only continued her studies in both Arabic and Spanish but picked up Chinese as well.

Today, Ray serves as volunteer coordinator for World Languages Day.

“I remember how I felt. That one day made me want to learn anything and everything I could about the rest of the world,” says Ray. “I see excitement and awe when students come out of a session that taught them something they didn’t know about a place they’ve never studied, and I know we’re doing something right.”

For Laura Knoebel and her students, the message is powerful: This day changes lives.

“When one of my students goes through hard times, she looks forward to stepping outside of her world and into another culture,” says Knoebel. “Today, another student said she was so happy to attend because it really made her think about others and want to see the world. That’s what it’s all about.”

UW-Madison is a leader in foreign language instruction and research. The university is home to 11 internationally respected departments of language and literature, 11 area studies centers, the National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages and the National African Language Resource Center. The Language Institute draws on the wealth of these resources to promote collaboration for research, education and community outreach in world languages, literatures and cultures.

For more information on World Languages Day and foreign language instruction and research, visit

High schools participating in World Languages Day this year include Argyle; Gillett; East, Edgewood, La Follette and West (Madison); the Academy for International Studies (Janesville); Johnson Creek; Tremper (Kenosha); Kewaskum; Milwaukee School of Languages and the University School of Milwaukee; Mineral Point; Mukwonago; Nekoosa; New Holstein; New Lisbon; Onalaska; Plymouth; Poynette; Reedsburg; Richland Center; Sauk Prairie; Waupun; Wausau East; Westby and Assumption (Wisconsin Rapids).


– Susannah Brooks,