Matthew Wisneski learned more than the Russian language this summer in Moscow.
“What I thought was valuable was making mistakes in the language process — because if you’re not making mistakes, that means you’re not really expanding your vocabulary or really trying,” he said.
Wisneski was one of 53 students traveling to 19 different countries last summer with support from the Summer Language Abroad program in Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures. Through intensive language coursework and daily interaction with native speakers, the SLA experience allows students to rapidly enhance their command of a foreign language. To apply for a 2019 grant, visit the SLA website — applications are due Jan. 25.
While it was at first hard to accept the mentality that mistakes would happen frequently, Wisneski said he realized it was the best way to take full advantage of the opportunity.
“I thought I had a pretty good language basis thanks to Notre Dame, and I think that basis allowed me to really try my hand at using some phrases and learning new vocabulary,” he said.
Wisneski, who is also a constitutional studies minor, said nothing can fully prepare you for being immersed in another culture, however.
“To wake up in the morning and have the first words you say to your host family be in Russian — instead of saying ‘Good morning’ in English, you have to say ‘доброе утро.’ Just thinking and speaking in Russian consistently throughout a day is a lot different,” he said.
While he was abroad, Wisneski decided he would apply for a Fulbright English teaching assistantship grant with the hope of returning to Russia after graduation. His time in Moscow also inspired him to pursue jobs that would utilize his knowledge of Russian.
“The experience really opened up my willingness to consider careers, especially in government, where I can use the language in a professional setting and establish relationships in Russia,” he said.
Building cultural competency
Jane Horak wanted to learn French ever since she was a young girl in ballet class, dreaming of becoming a prima ballerina.
“If you do want to get proficient or go into some level of fluency in another language, you can make a lot of progress in the States, but just being constantly surrounded by the language is going to be your best bet,” said Horak, a senior.
Horak’s experiences in and out of the classroom in France gave her many new insights and confidence. She volunteered at a retirement home, and her encounters there not only improved her conversational skills but also revealed unique cultural perceptions.
“Quite a few of the residents were around for World War II or shortly thereafter. They have a very different perspective than a lot of us do in America just because we’re so far separated from it,” she said.
Horak’s host mother also taught her about French culture — from making delicious meals to helping her understand the language and the culture in more intricate, nuanced ways. Her conversational abilities especially improved while playing board games with her host family.
Returning to Notre Dame, Horak has continued her French studies and hopes to continue after graduation as well, potentially with an organization such as Doctors Without Borders, which is present in many French-speaking countries. Her time abroad in another culture will be vital, she said, no matter where she’s treating future patients.
“Having this exposure to people who do things a little bit differently gives you an open mind,” she said. “Cultural competency is especially important in medicine when you’re going to be working with a diverse group of patients, because you have to be empathetic in a lot of different situations and understand when cultural values are at play.”
Junior Sydney Porter is no stranger to the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures in DeBartolo Hall. She visited at least once a week during her first two years at Notre Dame, to receive the language tutoring required of all students taking Korean.
After seeing posters and being encouraged by professors, Porter seized the opportunity to go to South Korea over the summer. A political science and film, television, and theatre major with a Korean minor, Porter said her classes abroad allowed her to work on her listening and comprehension skills.
“In our Korean classes, they would only speak Korean. They would repeat it in Korean until you got it,” she said.
After class, the students had time to do their assignments, study, and explore. Porter formed friendships by going sightseeing with other people participating in the program.
“The program had people from all around the world. I think that was one of my favorite parts, just because you got to learn so much about everywhere else in the world,” she said. “In my friend group there were people from Australia, from Turkey, from London, and China. It was a good environment to be in because you got to learn so much.”
Porter’s experience abroad and her return to campus has helped her realize just how much she has left to learn. It inspired her decision to study abroad in South Korea and perhaps return there after graduation through the Fulbright program or another foreign scholarship.
“After going to Korea, I realized that I really want to gain proficiency in the language,” she said, “and I know I have to go back to Korea to do that.”
Junior Zion Lee always wanted to learn another language in college. Lee, who is from Daegu, South Korea, first became interested in Germany because of the country’s national reputation and the similarities between Germany and his home country.
“Germany used to be divided, and we still are. I thought there may be something that I could learn from there,” he said. “Germany, they built themselves up and the economy is now very strong.”
Lee first traveled to Germany after his freshman year, through Notre Dame’s Berlin Summer Program. The experience inspired Lee to explore other areas in Germany, and his SLA grant sent him to a different city — Munich.
Before his summer abroad, Lee said he was much better at reading and listening to German than he was in creating his own thoughts through talking or writing. By spending the summer abroad, learning in classes, and interacting with locals, Lee’s speaking abilities have grown.
Now, he’s felt more comfortable speaking in German in class, and he’s found his German coursework to be much more relevant.
Lee will study abroad in Heidelberg in the spring, and he also hopes his senior thesis will integrate what he’s learned about Germany with his other interests.
“German definitely has become a big part of my life,” he said, “and not just something I study.”