That awkward moment when…

… you have to speak in a foreign language with someone who doesn’t speak English.
by Ben LaBouve, French tutor

Q: What is the most nerve wracking experience for anyone who studies a foreign language?

A: That moment you are faced with a native speaker and the pressure to speak elegantly and articulate is too much!

Studying foreign language in an academic setting is often vastly different than applying those skills in the real world. Sometimes you get so used to hearing and understanding a professor’s particular accent that you watch a movie in your language and realize you don’t understand anything! Even taking a class with a new professor, having to adjust to their speaking pattern and intonation, results in a sort of dizzying, linguistic vertigo. And let’s face it, while participating in class discussion, I am very guilty of using the same verbal structures over and over to get my point across. Just when you start to feel confident over your mastery of a language, it only takes one encounter with a native speaker to make you realize how much you still have to learn.

Depending on how closely you follow the CWLT blog, you should already be familiar with my extracurricular work with immigrants in the community. There is a lot of opportunity for me to interpret for Spanish-speaking clients but rarely is there ever a need for French language work. Coming out of class the other day, I received a call from work asking if I could come immediately and interpret for one of our clients. I obliged and went in! On the drive over, I started going over different sentence structures and specific vocab in Spanish that I knew I would need going in. However, I was met with a pleasant surprise! Today, I would be helping a woman from Haiti. Given the statistics of Spanish-speakers in the community versus the French-speaking, both of us were surprised that we could communicate using a mutual language.

After immediately freaking out (I have never interpreted actively in French before! Nor do I even know how to explain the specifics of social support programs, in English nonetheless!), I greeted her and could immediately tell how happy she was to be using her native tongue. After a few awkward flubs on my part, (the word for ‘March’ and ‘Mars’ are both ‘mars’ in French, No Madame, your appointment is not on Mars!! Darn prepositions!!), our dialogue flowed more naturally towards conversation. She reflected on her difficulty in speaking English: “I can read and write, but speaking is always what is most difficult.” We had a great laugh over this one as I explained that I was in the exact same situation as her, having to rely only on my speaking skills was extremely nerve-wracking for me, as my increasingly red face demonstrated. She also told me how her daughter would tease her that she really didn’t speak English, but only recognized the cognates and other phrases that English has appropriated from French.

Nothing could be truer. When we learn another language, we automatically flock to similarities as a way to compensate for our limited expression. Given that English and the romance languages are rooted in Latin, there are many words that can be easily converted across and many that are just cultural (l’amour is always love, fiesta is always party!). The only way to get past the language barrier is to take a deep breath, acknowledge that perfection is overrated and use it as an opportunity to learn. Get ready for a lot of correction! When you meet someone who speaks a different language, they will always be happy to speak to you because you are making an active effort to use their language and engage with their culture. A lot of the time, they will rely on you for the same reason. The chances are that they are just as anxious to use what they have learned as well. I believe that language only works with collaboration; through communicating with others, we essentially revolve the everyday world. Once you get past the initial language shock, your conversation will be fun and effortless. And the best part: you get a sense of validation that you’re not as awful as you think you are.





Ben’s visit to the state capitol

by Ben LaBouve, French tutor

Along with being one the French tutors in the center, I have also been lucky enough to hold a work study position off-campus at the Tacoma Community House.  Instead of tutoring French, I am a literacy advocate, helping native English speakers improve their reading and writing skills. I also get to help out in the ESL (English as a Second Language) courses. The best part about working with our ESL clients is that in a single classroom, many cultures and languages are present. The students become friends and overcome the language barrier by using English, the language they are learning. Many of the students are immigrants who have come to Tacoma seeking to better their lives and the lives of their families and some are refugees who are escaping systematic violence, oppression and political unrest. As a social service agency, not only do we offer English courses, we also provide naturalization and employment services to help ease the transition into American life and help them move towards economic independence. Being able to put a face to such a hot-button issue as immigration and hearing the deeply personal stories behind them is enriching to me both personally and socially – it inspires me to take that extra step and to try to enact positive changes for them.


Ben (on the left) at the state capitol!

On behalf of Tacoma Community House, I had the opportunity to participate in Washington State’s Immigrant and Refugee Legislative Day that took place on February 11th.  We took a group of about 50 of our ESL/Immigration clients and headed down to visit the capitol, however this was not your average field trip! My role in the event was to tour a group of students around and to meet with different senators and representatives to advocate for improving services that affect them and other immigrants in the state. The day focused on how productive and vital immigrants are to the community and to nation. Many refugees that have come to the US have supported US forces abroad, providing translation and support to Special Forces operations. Once they have come to the United States, they find it difficult to be self-sufficient on programs already in place, mainly because their basic needs are not being met.It is important to provide access to education services so that they are able to succeed; immigrants have one of the lowest graduation rates because of the lack of funding to ESL services – about 25.8% of students drop-out. A total of 9% of Washington’s student were enrolled in said programs, but only 1.2% of the state funds are allowed towards multilingual services. Another prominent issue is naturalization. Last year, our state cut funding to naturalization program resources by 47%, making it increasingly more difficult (and expensive) for these immigrants to become citizens. The US is foundationally a nation of immigrants, and often we don’t make it as readily accessible to them.

But I digress. In my group I had an older couple from Ukraine, Olga and Mykhailo, and a woman from Mexico, Jessie, who has been living in the US for more than 25 years. Each of them had a unique story which they disclosed to members of the senate. In our first meeting with a Pierce County representative, Olga explained that they had fled from Kiev, Ukraine because of increasing violence and political instability. She also expressed that her family had become divided; only one of her two children, her son, was able to come to the US with them and her daughter was left in Kiev. I asked how often they were able to get into contact with her, and she told me that often, they would go months, even years without hearing from her, with fear that she had been taken or injured by rebel forces or worse. Despite this, Olga remains optimistic. She knows she is doing everything she can to bring her daughter to the US and has faith in the work we are doing within our agency. Jessie explained to the senator that despite her extended stay in the US, she has still not been able to find a consistent job and depends on funding from the state in order to survive. She recalled her experience of crossing the border from Mexico and entering into Oregon, as an “obscuridad sin fin,” or a darkness with no end. The violence she endured on her odyssey, according to her, was more bearable than being in country that every day turns a blind eye to her needs. She reflected that meeting with the congresistas was a really important experience to her, “being able to put a face to a problem, to recognize that we are real people affected by decisions they make.”

After our meetings we gathered on the steps of the capitol for a rally. A good number of agencies and organizations that provide resources to immigrants in Pierce and King County were present. We grabbed our rally signs and cheered for the speech being made, many by immigrants themselves who work as policymakers for the state, who emphasized their needs and animated their hopes.

The speech that impacted me the most was made by an Iranian man who said” We are all gathered here today for the same reason. We have so many different languages, united by a single voice.” As a French tutor who just happens to be a Spanish major, language is important to me. No matter if you are using a Latin based language, an oral based language from sub-Saharan Africa or Mandarin characters, we have many different ways of expressing the same thing: we are all human beings who are equal and worthy. What my experience at the capitol taught me is that we have a responsibility to be good neighbors. No matter what language you speak, where you come, or what your culture is, the moment we stop learning from each other is the moment that we lose the war on equality.


Audrey’s conference experience!

by Audrey Kvam, CWLT physics tutor

Audrey and her poster!

I spent this past summer doing a theoretical research project (“Analyzing the
Propagation of Light through Composite Dark Matter”) with one of my professors in the
physics department, David Latimer. (It was fantastic, I highly recommend doing summer research here at UPS!) By mid-August, I was wrapping up my research, making my
poster, writing up my results, and David sent me a link to something called the Conference Experience for Undergraduates (CEU). This conference is held in conjunction with the American Physical Societyʼs fall meeting of the Division of Nuclear Physics, and is an opportunity for undergraduate researchers to get experience
presenting their research to the physics community, learn about the research currently
happening in the field of nuclear physics, and network to get connections for future
research/grad school. On somewhat of a whim, I sent in an application and received
funding both from the conference itself and UPS to attend with my research poster.

School took over and I barely had time to think about the conference until last
week, when I suddenly realized I was about to fly across the country (the conference
was held in Virginia this year), alone, to talk about my research with people who would
not only understand everything I did over the summer, but could also ask all kinds of
complicated questions that would go way over my head. I spent the next few days trying
valiantly not to panic.

It turns out all my angst was for nothing; small talk is not my forte, but luckily
physicists are not known for their social prowess and no one was thrown off by a little
awkwardness. By the second day, Iʼd made friends with a few other undergrads and
together we explored the area and went to endless talks given by current researchers at
universities and labs across the world. At the poster session, I fielded questions from
various graduate students and fully-qualified physicists and rather impressed myself
with how much I did know (although I had to admit to ignorance several times). There
was an ice cream social and a graduate school fair, where I talked to representatives
from schools such as Rutger, Duke, and MIT about what their programs are like, which
fields Iʼm most interested in, and what they look for in a strong application to grad


A group photo of all of the undergraduate researchers at the conference

Overall, the conference was incredibly inspiring. Hearing talks about current research made me realize how much I have yet to learn (I need to take a quantum
mechanics class STAT) and how much I really want to learn it. It was also apparent how
much the physics community really cares about the next generation of physicists-to-be by the ready willingness to give advice and recommend research and/or grad school opportunities. In just a few days, I made friends that I can see myself staying in touch with for years to come. For anyone who has the opportunity to attend a conference — for any field, not just physics — do it!!