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Harvard’s Language Exchange Program Receives Culture Lab Innovation Fund

Harvard's Language Center is housed in the basement of the Science Center.
Harvard's Language Center is housed in the basement of the Science Center. By Michael Gritzbach
By Emily L. Ding, Sabrina R. Hu, Joyce E. Kim, and Ammy M. Yuan, Contributing Writers

Harvard’s Language Exchange Program received a multi-thousand-dollar grant from the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging to expand the reach of its language-learning platform.

The Language Exchange Program, a platform connecting nearly 700 Harvard affiliates seeking conversation practice in various foreign languages, is based out of the University’s Language Center.

Language Center manager Mary L. DiSalvo recalled struggling to find a native Italian speaker with whom she could practice during her time as a student in Harvard’s Italian Ph.D. program.

After transitioning into her role at the Language Center, DiSalvo said she realized a language exchange program could solve this problem by allowing Harvard affiliates to “sign up on their own time, on their own terms,” search for partners, and meet them at their own convenience.

DiSalvo said the Language Exchange Program encourages “cross-conversation” across a “pretty strong dividing line” between members of Harvard’s various departments and schools.

“This seemed to fulfill not only the role of language practice for people who wanted to get some experience in a second or third or fourth language but also to meet people at Harvard who they normally wouldn’t meet,” DiSalvo said.

In testimonials, the program’s users — who range from beginners to native speakers — raved about the ability to connect with others who speak different languages and come from different backgrounds.

Ariana Aram, a recent graduate of the Harvard Dental School, wrote in a testimonial that she met two close friends through the program.

“It’s the thing that I look forward to each week (since summer 2020!) and it has not only helped me improve Spanish and Italian, but also to gain deeper understandings of other cultures and perspectives through the lens of students at other Harvard schools,” Aram wrote.

Minami Kojima, who attended the Harvard Extension School, stressed the importance of the program for non-native English speakers.

“As a nonnative English speaker living outside the US, this has been a great opportunity to improve my English speaking skill in a more intimate, comfortable, and casual environment, which prepares me to be more confident using English in classrooms,” Kojima wrote in a testimonial.

According to DiSalvo, the platform’s most popular languages include Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish, but the program has encountered trouble recruiting speakers of “less commonly spoken languages,” such as Romanian.

To attract more users, the center has displayed promotional newsletters and posters and is organizing an open house event in the spring.

“I'm hoping that as we go forward, we can hold more events — in-person events — at the Language Center itself,” DiSalvo said. “We don’t get a whole lot of visibility — we’re down in the basement of the Science Center — and I want people to know this resource exists.”

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