By Ella Murdock Gardner ’22
Students at Chaparral Elementary School are getting a taste of Chinese culture and language, but they don’t need to leave their classroom to do it. Under the guidance of Melody Chang ’22 and Wendy Zhang ’22, 34 fourth-grade students “teleport” from Claremont to China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan each week, learning the words for Chinese instruments, food, clothes, and festivals along the way. By teaching the youngsters language through a deep dive into culture, Scripps students both deepen their own understanding of language and culture and change the way their young pupils think about the world.
“You can see their eyes light up every time we integrate new words to our activities,” Chang says. “They’re always telling us how much they love our class and how they hope it will never end.”
In teams of two, participants in the Core III Foreign Language and Culture Teaching Clinic teach Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, and Hindi to the elementary school students and develop lesson plans that use language as an entry point into different cultures. Whether students are exploring music in Japan or learning about traditional cuisine in Colombia, the aim of the course is to develop language skills and intercultural competence, explains Assistant Professor of Italian Marino Forlino, who is currently teaching the Scripps clinic.
“This clinic is really the quintessential interdisciplinary experience,” Forlino says. “It combines notions of psycholinguistics, foreign language pedagogy, foreign language itself, and cultural studies. Our students are both deepening their own understanding of language and culture by teaching it and going beyond the pedagogy to learn how language fundamentally works and becomes acquired.”
Forlino inherited the clinic from Professor of French Thierry Boucquey, who had previously taught the course for twenty years before retiring in 2018. The clinic is one element of the College’ Interdisciplinary Humanities Initiative, which aims to expand and improve upon the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities. Supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and led by faculty members, interdisciplinary humanities clinics partner students with local organizations, giving them the opportunity to think critically about modern issues and use humanities-based modes of inquiry in the wider community.
One of the central goals of the Foreign Language and Culture Teaching Clinic is to build intercultural competence in both the Scripps and Chaparral students. Intercultural competence is the ability to develop and use cognitive and behavioral skills to effectively communicate with people of other cultures. “Developing intercultural competence is extremely important in many contexts,” Forlino says. “For example, intercultural competence is crucial in arenas such as hospitals, where doctors with different backgrounds from their patients need to be able to provide respectful and effective care in a manner compatible with their patients’ cultural beliefs.”
Scripps students are fostering intercultural competence and acceptance within the Chaparral classrooms, making their students more confident in their own cultural identities and comfortable with cultures that differ from their own. “Lots of the students in the Chaparral classroom are already native speakers of foreign languages, and it isn’t recognized and validated until our students come in,” Forlino says. Case in point: One Chaparral teacher told Forlino that one of her students—who is a native Chinese speaker—feels more integrated in the class and is engaging with her peers more since Chang and Zhang came to teach Chinese. “Besides teaching language and culture, we are also fostering peer-learning and community building,” says Forlino.
And the benefits don’t end there: Scripps students who have taken the course have gone on to earn Fulbright English-language education scholarships based on their experience teaching foreign language.
In the future, Forlino hopes to bring the clinic to other elementary schools, where students might have less exposure to languages beyond the ones they speak at home and school, and to schools with different needs. “I think the kids greatly benefit from Scripps students,” he says. “Our students are really making a difference.”