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Gifts for BYU’s Tongues


Russian is spoken here. And so are Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. English is not.

“Here” is BYU’s Foreign Language Housing Complex, a circular compound that houses 150 BYU students intent on becoming fluent in a foreign language.

“You can get to an intermediate language level going to classes, but to become advanced—to speak without hesitation and without a lot of mistakes—you need to speak with people day and night,” says Jeannie Welch, director of the complex, which was built in 1992.

Each apartment of six includes a “facilitator,” a student who is a native speaker. S. Serge Petelo, ’02, an international studies and linguistics major, is a facilitator in one of the men’s French apartments. “The students are under constant language pressure. When one wants to tell the roommates how his day went, he has to be clear enough that we understand,” says Petelo, who was born in Zaire but now considers Paris home.

The complex makes up a ward, so the students even worship together in a uniquely multilingual, multicultural experience.

If student enthusiasm is any measure, the complex is a resounding success. Often students who have exhausted their one-year eligibility in one language choose to study a second language rather than move. Elizabeth Cramer, ’02, an art history major, lived in the German house last school year and lives in the Italian house this year.

“I just can’t leave,” she says. “I don’t want to live anywhere else.”


A chief objective of the BYU Center for Language Studies is to give returned missionaries who learned less-commonly taught languages a chance to crystallize and improve their language skills.

“We’ve found that if returned missionaries take even one class after their missions, they’ll retain the language much better and be more active in it,” says center director Melvin J. Luthy.

Available through intensive eight-week summer courses as well as traditional courses during the academic year, the center’s offerings include such languages as Afrikaans, Bulgarian, Cebuano, Dutch, Finnish, Hawaiian, Korean, Navajo, Polish, Swahili, Thai, Turkish, and Ukrainian.

Finding teachers in the rare languages can be challenging, but they regularly materialize with uncanny timing, says Luthy.

“We had 15 missionaries who had served in Mongolia ask for a class. We didn’t have a teacher, but we found a Mongolian native who had served a mission in Canada, graduated from BYU, and was living in Provo. Last year we were struggling to find a Cebuano teacher. Right when we were looking, a very qualified woman who speaks Cebuano came in.”


One of the most successful language efforts at BYU has been to automate testing. More than 350 universities now use a computer test created at BYU that adapts to students’ skill levels as they take the test, yielding an extraordinarily quick and accurate evaluation. Developed by Jerry W. Larson, ’74, professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and his colleagues in the Humanities Research Center, the test helps students determine what classes they are ready for.

Another test diagnoses deficiencies and provides drills to strengthen weak areas. A third, still in development, will test students’ speaking proficiency by having them talk into a microphone mounted on a computer.

“Where it used to take four to four-and-a-half hours to interview students and evaluate their skills, we can now score their tests in less than an hour,” says Larson, who used the test to help officials of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games appraise the language skills of more than 500 volunteers.


In addition to the thousands of BYU students studying foreign languages, some 240 students per semester from 25 to 30 countries are at BYU solely to study English. 

The university’s English Language Center prepares these students to pass the national Test of English as a Foreign Language so they can enter U.S. universities. In small classes of 10 to 15, the students spend about 20 hours per week in the classroom and 20 hours in lab study. 

Academic coordinator and associate professor of linguistics C. Ray Graham, ’67, says, “One of our most effective strategies is to have them read massive amounts—15 to 30 pages per day in novels and other literature.” As a result, the students’ vocabularies grow at about 1,500 words per semester.