PROVO, Utah — Rebecca McKenzie has not served a mission in a foreign country or traveled extensively abroad. However, while living in BYU's Foreign Language Housing Complex she is learning to speak a second language as fluently as someone who has.
The BYU sophomore, currently studying Mandarin Chinese, is one of 148 students who live in a special housing complex designed to help them intensify their language study.
Six students reside together in one of 25 apartments — where they refrain from speaking English. Instead they communicate in Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian or Spanish.
Also in each apartment resides one native speaker who serves as a good linguistic model for the students, helping them with their foreign language homework and pronunciation.
The concept for the unique housing complex began in 1978, when BYU foreign language educators learned that many students desired to become conversationally fluent in a language, yet did not have the means for extensive travel abroad.
After studying programs at other universities, the officials organized a Russian and an Italian house — each free-standing homes owned by the university. The idea quickly caught on and by the early 1980s, there were also houses where students lived and spoke French, German, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Navajo, said program director Jeannie Welch.
However, the houses were spread across campus, making it difficult for all the language students to participate in activities together. So, in 1990, planners designed the current complex, five buildings located east of the Church's Missionary Training Center. Two of the buildings are for men and two for women with a large common building in between.
Each apartment is equipped with televisions and VCRs for foreign language channels and videos. Computers are also available in the apartments, so students can stay there as much as possible.
Students who live in the complex attend Church meetings together and are required to shop, plan, prepare and eat some meals with others studying their language.
While waiting recently for a Church News interview, many residents gathered in a common area of the complex. Numerous conversations in several languages occurred simultaneously.
"I love hearing languages all over the place," said Dorothea Luschin, a BYU senior living in a German-speaking apartment.
She explained she has found friends in the complex who are not only accepting of various cultures and backgrounds, but also are very understanding of them. "Having come from a different cultural background it is nice to be understood," said Sister Luschin, who grew up in Germany.
Sister Welch said it is difficult for even the best language students to achieve fluency without living abroad — as did Sister Luschin. "In order to become fluent," she explained, "you have to speak with someone."
She noted that many language students at BYU have a hard time, because they are competing in classes with returned missionaries who have lived in a country and learned a second language fluently. "With missionaries, both male and female, setting the fluency standard, those who haven't lived abroad have to sprint to keep up," she said.
For these students without foreign experience, she added, the language complex becomes a road to fluency.
Sister McKenzie said living in the language complex was, at first, really tough. She feared she would never comprehend anything. However, five months later she is completely at home. "We tell stories [in Mandarin Chinese] at the dinner table," she said. "We talk about what other people talk about."
BYU sophomore John Hancock served a mission in Italy. However, he is currently studying French and is living in a French-speaking apartment. He has found that people try to speak the language they are studying because it is fun and they want to learn. "The atmosphere is great," he said. "It keeps me involved."
Sister Welch said three important things occur at BYU's Foreign Language Housing Complex.
First, she noted, students benefit academically as they increase their language skills at home. Second, as students spend time with others who share the common interest of language and culture, they also develop socially. Finally, she said, she has seen students in the complex progress spiritually.
At Church — where testimonies are shared in different languages — the students begin to understand the impact of a global Church, she said. "You see a microcosm that [the Church is reaching] the world, that the gospel being taken to all people and cultures is a reality."
Brent Hall, bishop of the BYU 64th Ward, Brigham Young University 14th Stake, where the foreign language students attend, noted the ward is extremely culturally diverse because of the requirement to have native speakers in every apartment. Last fall several leadership positions in the ward were filled with students from places such as Madrid, Spain; St. Petersburg, Russia; Mexico City, Mexico; and Brasilia, Brazil.
Musical selections at Church are sung in a number of different languages and students can choose to attend Sunday School in one of 10 different languages. "For the language-impaired, we have an English class," joked Bishop Hall, who said attending Sunday School in another language helps students increase their religious vocabulary.
For him, Sunday has become a day of "worship and rejoicing" as he sees young people on a weekly basis devote themselves to the gospel — in a number of different languages. "I think it has helped us all to understand each other a lot better," he said.