Yale program exposes local youth to new languages and cultures

A group of high school students studying Russian text on a chalkboard.
Local high school students study Russian as part of the World CLASS program, which provides area youth the opportunity to study languages not offered by their school districts.

Every Monday at 4 p.m., Ayala Mack visits Yale to study Arabic.

Languages fascinate Mack, a ninth-grade student at New Haven’s Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, and Yale is helping her to feed that passion. She is one of 280 students from area high schools who participate in the World Culture and Language After School Studies Program (World CLASS), which provides high-school students from New Haven and surrounding towns instruction in languages and cultures not commonly taught in local schools.

Arabic is so different from other languages taught at school, and I wanted to try it,” said Mack, seated in a seminar room in Henry R. Luce Hall. “I think more people should be interested in learning it. It’s really hard, but I’m enjoying the class.”

Her classmate Maek Jung, a 10th-grade student at New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School, chose Arabic because it seemed so inscrutable.

I wanted to challenge myself,” said Jung, who moved to New Haven from South Korea during the summer. “This class seemed like a good opportunity for that.”

The program, founded in 1990, is run jointly by the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale and the Center for Language Study. It offers 14 courses in nine languages: Arabic, German, Italian, Japanese, Kiswahili, Portuguese, Russian, Ukrainian, and Urdu. Classes meet once a week for 90 minutes from October through May. The program costs $400 per course, although students of New Haven’s public schools receive scholarships supported in part by federal Title VI grants provided by the Macmillan Center’s Council on African Studies and Council on Middle East Studies. Some students take two languages. Mack, an East Haven resident, is also taking a course on Japanese.

Teaching foreign languages is not the program’s only goal, said Tarana Jafarova, who coordinates World CLASS.

We also introduce our students to a foreign culture,” said Jafarova, who teaches Russian and Urdu classes and is on the staff of the Council on Middle East Studies. “We expose them to the music, food, dance, and art and try to develop an appreciation for the cultures and countries where people speak these languages.” 

The students take field trips to cultural events, such as the Sakura cherry blossom festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Each year, the program hosts spring and winter festivals at Luce Hall, enlisting various student groups and cultural centers on campus. 

Minjin Hashbat, program administrator at Yale’s Center for Language Study, said providing city and suburban schools a shared learning experience is an important element of World CLASS.

It brings together students of various backgrounds and fosters understanding among them,” said Hashbat, who oversees World CLASS. “The kids form friendships with each other. They enjoy the diversity and multi-cultural environment in their classes.”

Students also get a glimpse of life on a university campus, which can spark an interest in pursuing a college education, Hashbat said.

A lot of students enrolled in our programs from the New Haven public schools end up being the first generation in their families to enroll in college,” she said. “They use our program, as well as other outreach programs on campus, as a stepping stone that strengthens their college applications.”

Jessica Haxhi, supervisor of world languages at New Haven public schools, said the program provides city students a unique and valuable opportunity.

Our students develop language skills, cultural understanding, and a love of language learning that will follow them well into college, career, and life,” she said.  “We are thrilled to have this exciting learning opportunity made available to them and to cooperate with Yale on this and other projects to enhance education for New Haven students.”

The program solicits feedback from its students. Their testimonials show an appreciation for the opportunity to learn about a foreign language and culture in a diverse environment.

A student who had completed a Portuguese course reported having enjoyed the experience.

“I thought I wasn't going to fit in at first but having students with a different ethnicity/nationality really helped me feel comfortable,” the student wrote.

The program’s instructors are Yale staff members, graduate students, and language teachers from the community. Hanan Elkamah, who teaches at New Haven’s Mauro-Sheridan Magnet School, instructs Mack and Jung’s Arabic class.

I like how she takes the time to explain things to me,” Mack said. “She’s patient. She doesn’t fly through the information.”

The courses are structured under the guidelines of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The Center for Language Studies organizes at least two methodological and pedagogical workshops a year for the program’s instructors. New Haven public school students, and students from about half of the suburban districts, receive a half-credit in foreign languages when they complete a course.

Three years ago the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs included World CLASS in its Yale Pathways to Arts and Humanities initiative, which seeks to inspire youth to explore the human experience through art, history, literature, and languages. Faculty in the language departments are supportive of the program and hope to see it expanded, Hasbat said.

Hashbat said that, according to surveys, World CLASS students often continue to study foreign languages and cultures in college and pursue related careers.

We can see how this program literally transformed their lives,” she said. 

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Mike Cummings: [email protected], 203-432-9548