Penn students promote linguistic and cultural diversity

Ariel Koren, a junior in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, fell in love with the Spanish language and Latin American culture when she was in high school in Jacksonville, Fla. But for her sister, who has learning disabilities, lessons about another language and culture weren’t quite as accessible.

“She was always interested in the passion that I had for foreign language education, but never really had the opportunity to learn another language at her school,” Koren says. “So when I was a senior, I was inspired to talk to administrators at her school and start an informal Spanish class.”

The informal class was a success, and Koren established a formal organization—ACTION, an acronym for Active Cross-cultural Training In Our Neighborhoods—to continue bringing foreign language education to where it otherwise might not be possible.

When Koren came to Penn in 2011, she missed teaching Spanish, so she replicated her informal Spanish classes at Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia. By her sophomore year, she had officially launched a branch of ACTION at Penn, which now places more than 60 student tutors at Lea and Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia.

Today, ACTION is a full-fledged organization designed to promote and celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity by mobilizing volunteers to work toward making foreign language and culture education accessible.

“Statistics show that if you have exposure to a foreign language when you’re younger, you’ll be more successful,” says Koren, co-director of ACTION. “Learning a foreign language when you’re younger helps you develop creativity, helps you develop skills in your first language, in reading, writing, communicating, with the understanding that the world is bigger than your own experience.”

Each week, ACTION deploys student volunteers, including native and non-native Spanish speakers, to both elementary schools to teach after-school Spanish lessons. Koren says language lessons are just one part of the ACTION experience—tutors also integrate cultural lessons, such as bartering in an open market in Latin America and traditions like the 15th birthday quinceañera.

“Last week, for example, [students] learned the colors, and this week they’re learning about sports and activities,” says Nicole Peinado, a junior communications major and co-director of ACTION at Penn. “So they’re incorporating the words into the activities that they’re learning.”

But Peinado and Koren say ACTION is not only beneficial for the elementary school students volunteers teach.

“Penn is a stressful environment, and any one of our tutors will say having the opportunity to teach is such a rewarding experience,” Koren says. “Our volunteers are breaking out of the Penn bubble every week and making connections in elementary schools, becoming not only teachers but mentors.”

Both co-directors agree that the true value of ACTION, to both volunteers and students, can be witnessed by the countless “a-ha!” moments that occur when a certain language or cultural concept is acquired in the classroom.

“In other countries around the world, [students] are learning two or three languages in addition to their native language,” says  Peinado. “By promoting [language and cultural education], students will be in better touch with the world.”

Originally published on December 12, 2013