Summer conversation sessions keep language skills sharp

Cornell’s Language Resource Center is hosting online conversation groups this summer for the first time, helping students practice their skills in four languages.

The hourlong sessions – in Italian, Russian, Spanish and Turkish – happen weekly or every other week and are led by a facilitator, often a native speaker. That leader helps participants converse about topics including current events and their lives, said Angelika Kraemer, director of the Language Resource Center.

“Most of them are undergraduates who want to keep their language skills strong during the summer, but we do have a handful of community members, staff and alumni,” she said. “For language acquisition and to advance proficiency, it’s crucial to continually engage, practice, speak and apply the language. Not utilizing the language for three months is detrimental.”

Ruby Li ’23 was a force behind the formation of the Russian summer group. “I was born and raised in Moscow, but when I was 6, my family moved back to China for me to go to school, so I gradually lost my fluency in Russian,” she said. “When I came to Cornell, I knew I wanted to study Russian.”

During their Sunday afternoon sessions, the conversations range from summer activities to favorite Russian foods. “Everybody is at different levels, so if someone doesn’t know a word, we help them learn it,” Li said. “But we don’t correct each other. We are just trying to encourage everyone to practice speaking.”

Mashka Sutton ’22, another Russian group facilitator, said she’s studying the language not for its career possibilities, but to more closely connect with her family and culture.

“This is especially important to me, coming from a household in which my mother and I are the only speakers of Russian,” said Sutton, who spent last summer studying Russian at Moscow State University. “This conversation hour provides me with the opportunity to practice this wonderful, living language with others.”

Banu Ozer Griffin, lecturer in Turkish, started the Turkish group this summer and she’s glad that her students have this chance to continue to practice. During the academic year, she matched her students with college students from Turkey for weekly conversations.

“Language is a vibrant thing, so it’s important to interact with other speakers,” she said. “It’s so good for them to have these natural environments to do that.”

Students who speak Spanish have been meeting on Thursday evenings with volunteer co-facilitators Jessica Ames, a Spanish speaker and program coordinator for Global Cornell and Danilo Moreta, a graduate student in plant breeding and genetics.

“This is usually a time when students are traveling or having summer internships. It’s usually a very enriching time in their educational experience,” Ames said. “So I think it’s very important that we provide students with an opportunity to stay connected to Cornell and give them something productive and important to do with their time.”

During the academic year and before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Language Resource Center hosted weekly in-person conversation hours, where students could speak informally with others learning the same language.

“This idea was on my mind even before COVID, to have an online platform for students to speak with native speakers,” Kraemer said. “In the future, there could still be an option for this, with students meeting in person for conversations in our spaces and others brought in online from wherever they are.”

The Language Resource Center offers other tools for students during the summer, including SCOLA, a service that broadcasts news and cultural programs in more than 80 languages, including ready-to-use multimedia lessons and materials. There are also links there to online periodicals and journals in various languages.

All of the conversation hour leaders say more participants are welcome. Find more information here:

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