Ally Guo | Staff Writer

Sophomores Emir Tali and Raquel Ramirez both lead the GLI as Ambassadors while learning other languages.

Language barriers are being broken thanks to Mason High School’s (MHS) Global Language Initiative.

Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and American Sign Language are offered during the school day as classes to Mason students. However, the Global Language Initiative (GLI) was established two years ago so that students could learn an even wider array of languages. 

At club meetings, members split up into different groups based on what language they are interested in, and native speakers of that language — called Ambassadors — teach an informal lesson for about an hour. Available languages include Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, Russian, Hindi, Telugu, Afrikaans, and more.

Sophomore Raquel Ramirez, the current President of the GLI and an Ambassador for Spanish, said that although she often learns new languages by herself, she joined the club in order to practice them with other people. She said she believes a great way to learn languages is by making a “personal connection to someone else” and practicing with “day-to-day” situations.

“That really was the primary motivation for me: to meet new people and learn new things about the world,” Ramirez said.

Sophomore Emir Tali, an Ambassador for Turkish, said that alongside teaching Turkish, he learns Spanish with the club. Though he also takes Spanish at the school, he believes his speaking has improved as a result of the GLI because of the opportunity to practice having everyday conversations with native speakers.

“The class content isn’t bad, but there’s just not that much person-to-person speaking,” Tali said. “[With Raquel], we converse about daily life and what happened in school. Since she’s [a] native [speaker], she uses some common slang words that I don’t really know. I write them down so I can use them later. And if I say something wrong — say, use the wrong tense or the sentence [doesn’t] make sense–she corrects me and then I try to say it again.”

Though some people join the club to supplement their normal high school language classes, according to junior Laila Shaikh, the Head of Marketing and Outreach and an Ambassador for Arabic, most students come because they have a “passion about another language.”

“I know a lot of people who complain about Mason not offering more than Spanish, French, Mandarin, and German,” Shaikh said. “[The] majority [of] the people who come want to learn, [for example], Italian or Shanghainese or Arabic.”

Lessons with the GLI are extremely flexible for both the students and the Ambassadors. Students can choose what language to attend on a week-by-week basis, allowing them to either stick with one language or be exposed to a wide variety.

The Ambassadors also have a lot of freedom to customize their lessons. For example, Tali chooses to use PowerPoint presentations during his lessons while other teachers don’t. He said he tries to “expose the students to [the] language as much as possible,” such as by giving “example conversations” and “playing sounds.”

Urdu Ambassador and sophomore Omar Chaudhry, said the students often guide the content that is taught. Though he started out teaching some basic fundamentals of Urdu, such as key words, students are able to request certain topics, grammar, or vocabulary.

“We do whatever the student [wants] to learn,” Chaudhry said. “Like a specific word or sentence they wanted to learn, they could come to that session with that sentence or list of verbs and then we would tell them it.”

Additionally, Shaikh said she often ends up discussing the culture, history, and politics of the Arabic-speaking world after the main lesson is finished. Though sometimes these conversations can get “off-topic” and “super political,” she said she tries to maintain a “secure environment for everyone” and finds that students are often interested in these topics.

“A big part of identity is your language, which connects to culture,” Shaikh said. “As a child of immigrants who speaks two different languages at home, it’s just a good idea [to have] a place where people can come and be comfortable with their own identity.”

Ramirez, who teaches Spanish while learning Russian and Turkish, said she really enjoys attending GLI meetings, both as a student and a teacher. Alongside interacting with other students, she said she relishes the opportunity to share her language and develop important skills.

“As a student, it’s so much fun because you’re learning what you’re interested in,” Ramirez said. “There’s a lot of back and forth with the speaking and it makes you think on your feet, which is a skill that a lot of people are trying to work on. As a teacher, it’s super fun because you get to use your own language, which you might not have [much] chance to use outside of your personal family and relationships. Language is such a window into the culture of those individuals, and you can really see how [people] think in the language.”

Ramirez also said she appreciates the relaxed, encouraging environment of the GLI. Though she was nervous when she first began, she said the support she received made it so she doesn’t have to “worry about making a mistake or sounding weird.”

“We’re doing this video that we’re going to showcase at the end of the year, where everyone submits a video clip of them speaking their language of choice at the very beginning of the year, and then again, at the end of the year, so they can really see their progress,” Ramirez said. “We’re doing this to show that you can do it. It doesn’t take a talent to learn a language. You just have to want to learn it.”

While most Ambassadors and students enjoy the laid back and flexible nature of the GLI, it does present occasional problems. With some students choosing a different language every week or missing meetings, it is sometimes difficult for teachers to accommodate all skill levels. However, Tali believes this issue can actually be beneficial.

“It’s a problem, but I kind of turned into an advantage,” Tali said. “Because I know that some students missed a meeting or two, I review the past lesson[s]. It becomes a teaching moment for that student who missed it.”

Another struggle is finding teachers for certain languages. Shaikh said that if several students are looking to learn an unavailable language, she’ll make a post on Instagram and try to find someone who speaks that language. Additionally, attempts have been made to expand the club beyond MHS, such as reaching out to a Russian speaker who lives outside of the Mason district.

“That was a really big initiative that we started this year,” Ramirez said. “We’re trying to connect a bunch of students from all over the country and [other] schools to broaden the amount of languages we have. We’re always willing to add new people in, no matter what school they’re from.”

Alongside adding even more languages and involving more English Second Language students, there is also the possibility of expanding the GLI to other countries. Tali said he thought the club could potentially find Ambassadors from out of the country to do a “mutual exchange,” where GLI members teach foreign students English while learning them.

Although Ramirez said she is excited to see the club evolve, her ultimate goal is to create a place where people are free to share their cultures and bond over a love of languages.

“We really want to touch every student in some way,” Ramirez said. “We’re really hoping that it’s a club where everyone can feel comfortable to go in and share their language and their culture, because sometimes people can be afraid to do that. We’re really hoping to create a safe space for everybody, and we’re hoping to get more people involved and share our love for languages with other people throughout the school so that it keeps growing.”

Graphic by Lexi Brown, Photos by Ally Guo