World Languages Day draws more than 500 WI high school students

What do French bread, Pokemon Go, and Tibetan chants have in common?

Each of these subjects were among the many topics that over 500 high school students from across Wisconsin explored during World Languages Day (WLD) at UW–Madison.

High school students
More than 500 students from across Wisconsin attended World Languages Day. Photo courtesy of Yasha Hoffman.

The campus wide effort has been organized by the Languages Institute since 2004 and brings high school students and teachers together with UW–Madison faculty and students to learn about topics in languages and cultures.

WLD offers 50 breakout sessions for students to choose from, with intriguing titles such as “More than Tetris: Russian Language and Culture Through Video Games,” “Test Drive Balkan Village Dance,” and “Zulu Rhythms.” Each session gave students a glimpse into cultures and languages around the world.

Wendy Johnson, assistant director of the Languages Institute and organizer of the event, hopes that the day shows students how languages can provide opportunities across a variety of fields.

“I hope students are inspired to continue learning the language they are learning in high school,” Johnson said. “After that I hope they’re inspired to set goals for themselves that include learning a different language, studying abroad, and seeking interactions with individuals in their own communities who are from different countries.”

Jennifer Ostrowski
Jennifer Ostrowski, UW-Madison senior majoring in International Studies and African Languages and Literature, delivered remarks about her own experiences abroad. Photo courtesy of Yasha Hoffman.

Johnson also said that with students attending from across the state, and in some cases travelling two hours or more to participate, it is also an opportunity to help young Wisconsinites begin thinking about college.

“There is so much value in bringing students from Wisconsin to campus to meet instructors and get them thinking of attending college, whether that is here or one of the many other colleges and universities in the state,” Johnson said.

Learning about Oneida moons

UW–Madison faculty and students weren’t the only ones sharing their expertise. Students from Pulaski Community High School hosted a session, “During Which Oneida Moon Does Your Birthday Fall?” The session, which was led by the Pulaski students, taught participants the names of the month or “moon” their birthday falls under, what that moon means, and how to say it.

Rosa Yekuhsiyo Francour, Oneida Language Teacher for Pulaski Community School District, lauded the session as an opportunity for her students to engage in community outreach and also practice their speaking skills. It also lets other students build awareness of the uniqueness of tribal languages.

“The public often doesn’t know that the various tribes have their own language,” Francour said. “Even if the students who attended our presentation don’t remember their month of the moon, it is an opportunity to remind them of the Oneida people and that this is their language.”

A variety of sessions gave high school students to engage languages and cultures across the globe. Photo courtesy of Yasha Hoffman.

Francour added that raising awareness of and learning languages gives insights into the perspectives of others, which could be key to addressing many of society’s problems.

“Language is a bridge that provides a window to learning about others,” Francour said. “Our language is old and passed down through oral tradition, yet it still has a place in this world and can contribute to solutions to modern problems through showing a new perspective.”

Building a global perspective

Brian Belair, Spanish teacher at New Holstein High School, has been brought students to WLD four times. He has received strong, positive feedback from his students over the years and sees the day as a way to spark further interest in Spanish as well as other cultures.

“The kids really enjoy themselves,” Belair said. “I had a student today who said that she is now thinking of pursuing something to do with languages. I can teach them about cultures in my Spanish classes, but at an event like this they see that there is more outside of Spanish.”

Belair also believe there is value in teaching students to have a global perspective, no matter what field they pursue.

“The world is becoming so small,” Belair said. “Learning about languages and cultures helps students understand that people are people no matter where they’re from. It is great to expose kids to these kinds of experiences.”