World Languages Day to Draw 700-plus Students from Across Wisconsin

CONTACT: Wendy Johnson, (608) 262-1473,

MADISON – It’s a rite of passage each spring for thousands of state high school students – heading to Madison for basketball, hockey and wrestling tournaments and a taste of the city, the university and a day or two out of school.

But the siren call is not just for sports enthusiasts. The campus beckons each spring to those interested in exploring world languages and cultures at World Languages Day, an annual event sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Language Institute that attracts some 700 students from 25 Wisconsin high schools. This year’s event, the 7th World Languages Day, will take place on April 22 in the Memorial Union and the Pyle Center.

Through more than 50 class sessions on language learning, storytelling, skits, cinema, dance and music, students are exposed to many diverse world languages and cultures. Over 30 languages are represented in these sessions, from Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Norwegian and Spanish to Yoruba.

Students may select among sessions with topics such as Finnish youth culture in the 21st century; the language, music and folkloric dance of Jordan; Latin dance; Hebrew in the Bible and the Dead Sea scrolls; using French in the professional world; Chinese fashion; and Hmong language and culture. Many of the sessions are participatory and include performances and foods from the target culture.

In a session titled “A Viking Adventure,” students will learn about both Viking culture and contemporary Norwegian society through photographs, a skit about Viking life performed in Norwegian by UW-Madison students studying Norwegian and through the enticing taste of a popular Norwegian dessert, the waffle.

Program organizers hope the students will be inspired to continue studying languages after high school graduation, perhaps when they enroll in UW-Madison. “We hope that the event excites students to see the value of studying languages beyond just meeting a foreign language requirement for college graduation,” says Wendy Johnson, outreach coordinator for the Language Institute. “Learning foreign languages exposes students to cultures of the world. We want to get beyond evaluating cultures by how they compare to our own. All cultures have rich, deep traditions and values all their own. By studying languages and culture, we bring down walls and stereotypes.”

Brett Schilke is living proof of the value of World Languages Day. A native of Neenah, Wis., he attended the event while in high school, where he was studying German. Now a senior at UW-Madison majoring in psychology, he is studying Dutch and Russian. This summer he’ll go to Russia to teach English; then he heads to the Netherlands for his fall semester.

Schilke is such a believer in World Languages Day, he volunteers at the event to help things run smoothly. “In high school, I was excited to get a day off of school and come down to Madison and have fun at all the sessions,” says Schilke. “Now, I am so impressed with all the language departments on campus, I tell everybody. I probably have more credits in foreign languages than in my major.”

High school teachers and administrators also see the value of the experience. “World Languages Day is such a popular event among high schools. We have a waiting list of schools that want to participate in World Languages Day to show their students the great diversity of languages and cultures in the world. This is really the Wisconsin Idea in action – the university reaching small-town Wisconsin,” says Johnson.

For the presenters, the event is an opportunity to recruit future students and highlight the abundant foreign language offerings on campus, says Peggy Hager, lecturer in the Department of Scandinavian Studies and “Viking Adventure” presenter. “By allowing my students to be involved in an interactive presentation, they can convey their enthusiasm for learning a language not taught in area high schools. Our visiting students may consider exploring Norwegian or another less commonly taught language at UW-Madison.”

World Languages Day has caught on at other campuses as well. Michigan State University and the University of Minnesota now hold similar programs for high school students in their states. To help other schools get started, collaborators from the UW-Madison Language Institute and the other two participating campuses have created a handy and thorough how-to guide with information on event planning, funding and logistics. “The guide aims to help high schools, colleges and universities build their own world languages day and thereby spread the message widely of how exciting and enriching language learning is,” says Sally Magnan, Language Institute director.

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 2008 include: Adams-Friendship; Beaver Dam; Brookfield Central; Madison East; Fond du Lac; Hartford Union; Kewaskum; Madison La Follette, Logan High School, La Crosse; Marshfield; Menasha; Middleton; Mineral Point; Mount Horeb; New London; Oshkosh North; Oshkosh West; Plymouth; Poynette; Rufus King International Baccalaureate School, Milwaukee; R.E.A.L. School, Racine; Reedsburg Area; Richland Center; Sauk Prairie; and Tremper High School, Kenosha.