Language Units Strengthen Connections in a Time of Isolation

Written by Camilla Zamboni, Assistant Professor of the Practice in Italian, and Natalia Román Alicea, Assistant Director, Intercultural and Language Learning

In a trying time of social distancing and reduced interaction, language units at Wesleyan are acutely aware of how important it is to preserve connections across languages and cultures. Language learning relies and thrives on human contact inside and outside the classroom, and language faculty at Wesleyan had to quickly reinvent part of their programs to address the new, distanced “normal.” Fortunately, all languages have risen to the occasion and have created spaces for virtual connection, so much so that students have now even more opportunities to practice their chosen language during this difficult and isolating time. Here are some highlights from all language units during this mostly virtual semester.

The College of East Asian Studies has focused particularly on creating language partnerships and exchanges with universities in several countries. 

The Chinese language program has recently developed a hybrid language partnership for beginner level students, which has increased the opportunities for the students’ interactions with native Chinese speakers both on campus and in China. For the intermediate level, faculty invited TAs from China to lead practice and discussion in breakout rooms on Zoom so that students have more opportunities to talk in class. The language partners and TAs from China are graduate students from Beijing Normal University, majoring in Linguistics or TCSOL. In addition, the virtual Chinese Table is more flexible on meeting times, and the range of topics is more expansive, such as “Chinese Cooking” and “US-China Forum.”

The Japanese language program has increased interactions and virtual exchanges with Japanese students in partner institutions in Japan. These exchanges have complemented existing language tables and partnerships with the Associated Kyoto Program and the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies. One of the most exciting initiatives has been having upper-level Japanese students engage with Japanese students from Doshisha University in Kyoto, who have volunteered to serve as language partners, oral presentation and debate judges, as well as speakers on various topics.

The Korean language program has established a new virtual language exchange program with Korea University. This program is a joint effort by the two universities to connect students virtually in order to foster intercultural dialogue while practicing their language skills. Intermediate and Advanced level students are given the chance to chat virtually once a week with Korea University students in a mutual exchange of Korean and English.

In the Department of Classical Studies, all language courses were taught fully online this semester and course-structure, exercises, and projects were adapted to create dynamic and highly collaborative learning environments. Especially on the advanced levels of language instruction, students had the opportunity to bring the study of ancient language and culture to life through innovative exercises and varied media.

On the Latin side, the introductory Latin course shifted to story-based language learning, with an emphasis on narrative comprehension and online grammar games. In the advanced Latin course on Roman Comedy, the class is staging Plautus’ Pseudolus as “Pandemic Plautus,” an adaptation of the play with students performing multiple roles in isolation with costumes and props fashioned from everyday dorm room objects. Ancient Roman comedy was highly improvisatory with no permanent theater facilities and many localized distractions in the midst of unending warfare, so students will be learning first-hand how these productions could come together in times of crisis.

On the Greek side, the introductory Greek course took advantage of online forums to engage students in collaborative work outside class-time. In the advanced Greek seminar Homer in Bronze Age, alongside traditional translation and discussion, in an effort to foster a stronger sense of community and engagement, the students were asked to work on major collaborative projects throughout the semester. For example, students translated Book 2 of the Iliad, the “Catalogue of Ships”, and used their translation to create a collaborative Google map that contextualized each of the heroes in their geographic hometowns. The class then used their map as a geopolitical backdrop against which to discuss archaeological and historical evidence for the polities and events of the end of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean. This helped them to engage with the historical landscapes in a way that was far more effective than any lecture or reading.

The Department of German Studies has explored new ways to engage their students, including launching the first German/English podcast at the end of October. Beginning German students are meeting with language tutors virtually once per week. The tutors include students from Munich University and one Wesleyan student from Austria, who is currently living in Vienna. The German Haus on campus is also hosting virtual coffee hours.

The Department of Romance Languages and Literatures has taken varied approaches.

The French section has found ways to maximize engagement with our students and the French-speaking world by organizing several initiatives. The Foreign Language Teaching Assistants in France host a weekly virtual brunch/promenade on Saturday mornings during which the Wesleyan community can visit different places (Bordeaux, Lyon, Tours, Paris) or—due to the current lockdown—converse over tea and coffee. The French Section also organized a French Song Challenge on Instagram, which was a great success, and is inviting tutors and professors from the Vassar Wesleyan Program in Paris to take part in French language classes and advanced seminars.

The Italian section has decided to implement hybrid classes for the fall, which can accommodate in-person and remote students. Italian students in elementary, intermediate, and advanced classes are also meeting with Course Assistants on campus and with the Italian Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) remotely once a week for conversation sessions. In the advanced courses, students and faculty enjoyed several online visits by guest speakers, and met with Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim to discuss Middletown’s Christopher Columbus statue and plans for the Harbor Park renovation. Italian faculty also engaged in creating online public scholarship, such as videos for the Canto per canto project by the Dante Society of America. Further, this semester the student-run Italian magazine Wescrive is focusing on the theme of “(dis)connections” as an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the covid-19 pandemic; and the Italian section is creating several videos (virtual tours, presentations, and cooking tutorials) to offer asynchronous opportunities for students in different time zones around the world.

The Portuguese students at Wesleyan met with Brazilian students of English for tutoring and conversation. These students are from the capital city of Maceió, Alagoas, on the coast of northeastern Brazil. During the weekly linguistic exchanges, students will chat first in Portuguese and then in English. In addition, the students have followed Brazilian news of the US elections and watched several films and news reports, including two documentaries and one full-length feature film.

The Spanish section offered a range of teaching modalities but mostly committed to making the on-line experience as attractive, rewarding, and accessible (e.g., to remote students) as possible. To cut down on isolation, faculty supplemented the on-line experience in multiple ways: in Elementary Spanish students had the option of meeting in small groups on Fridays for socially-distanced opportunities to practice in person. In the advanced seminars, students had multiple opportunities to collaborate outside of class: for instance, to rehearse a short play, to peer-review each other’s papers, to prepare their formal talks in panels delivered in a class session organized as a conference on a film they had discussed earlier with their panelmates, and to prepare their collaborative oral presentations. Several seminars invited outside speakers (scholars and writers) from across the country or abroad to take part in a discussion, lead classes for a week, and/or give a lecture that offered other perspectives on the course’s material. Students engaged with Foreign Language Teaching Assistants in Spain and Colombia via online, small-group, 30-minute conversation hours (tertulias). FLTAs also created videos about different aspects of Colombian and Spanish culture that students could watch asynchronously to practice their language skills and virtually “visit” Colombia and Spain.

The Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Program has been working on expanding students’ opportunities to communicate with Russian speakers outside of class, both at Wesleyan and beyond. In Spring and Fall 2020, the program offered two CLAC courses (The Communist Experience in the Soviet Union and Tolstoy) and a group tutorial on contemporary Russian literature taught in Russian, which provided plentiful opportunities for advanced students, heritage, and native speakers to study together. In Spring 2020, Wesleyan for the first time participated in the New England Olympiada of Spoken Russian, held online this year, where Wes student Bold Boldbayar took third place in the poetry contest. Faculty also regularly invite Russian-speaking guests who specialize in fields beyond literature and language (eg. a physicist, a blogger, a lawyer) from all over the world to be interviewed by advanced students.

Within the languages offered at the Fries Center for Global Studies, American Sign Language (ASL) offers a hybrid-model class this year, accommodating students who are learning in person and remote. Each week, students meet in small groups with their CA/TA, review recorded video lessons created, signed, and captioned by faculty, and meet over Zoom to discuss historic and contemporary issues in Deaf culture. Because ASL is not written nor spoken, it is important that students have the opportunity to practice with each other, so the CA/TA team holds office hours throughout the week and hosts “ASL Outdoors” every Sunday for students to gather outside and sign together, while staying distanced and masked. ASL also plans to implement GoReact—an interactive platform with embedded instructor and TA feedback via ASL on student-submitted video assignments—for students to work on their expressive skills.

All the Hindi-Urdu language and culture courses were online this fall. Faculty offered co-curricular opportunities to engage with language and culture and modified course assignments and projects to enrich students’ learning experience. Students participated in a weekly Language Table which is facilitated by a native speaker: participants not only get a chance to practice the language but also talk about several topics relevant to the target language and culture. The program also offered an online ‘Story Hour’ once a week, in which all participants could listen and tell a story in either of the languages. The Hindi-Urdu section is also partnering each student with a native speaker from the local community to offer more opportunities for language practice.

Finally, the Shapiro Center for Writing has converted the Writing Workshop to an online format to accommodate multilingual students participating remotely and more specifically offered more convenient hours for international students. To support international students transitioning to US culture during the pandemic, a six-week online summer course was created in collaboration with the Office of International Student Affairs. It will be offered again over winter break for those who deferred until the Spring semester. In the fall, two courses specifically for multilingual writers will be offered with asynchronous options for those participating in various time zones.


The information published in this piece was submitted by language section heads, coordinators, and professors, and edited by the authors. For more information about language offerings at Wes, please contact Natalia Román Alicea at