Chatting up a storm

As it spreads to university campuses across the country, and with over 3,000 participants here, the Chat program continues to provide its multilingual message

The Chat program started out with only 500 buttons. Today, 4,000 language buttons give students from diverse backgrounds the chance to share conversation and make connections.
The Chat program started out with only 500 buttons. Today, 4,000 language buttons give students from diverse backgrounds the chance to share conversation and make connections.

Martijn Kuipers learned about the Chat program through the Queen’s university International Centre when he first arrived in Canada.

Kuipers, an ArtSci ’07 exchange student from Groningen, Netherlands, agreed the buttons helped him to meet new people for the first few days at Queen’s, when everybody tries to get to know each other. “They said that you can encourage people to talk in that language, which is what I liked about [the program],” he said.

He found dutch and Japanese buttons at QUIC when he first arrived and eventually picked up a French and German button. but in terms of practicing english, he didn’t think the english button was an effective tool.

“Everybody assumes you speak english; that’s the first language you speak here anyway.”

People approached him a lot about the Japanese button. “To be honest, I think the buttons are a nice extra. It’s 90 per cent your own initiative, and 10 per cent buttons.”

What started simply as a discussion topic has become a reality for Chat’s organizers as more than 4,000 language buttons are now worn around Queen’s campus and beyond. During her first year at Queen’s in the fall of 2002, Cheryl Bulpitt attended Think Again, a leadership conference in Ottawa.

There, attendees were asked to brainstorm ways to promote French around universities, given the dominance of english on most Canadian campuses. During the discussion process, the group extended the idea to multilingualism.

When Bulpitt came back, the question was still lingering in her mind. So she and Michelle Bourbonniere, ArtSci ’05, began the process of spreading multilingualism around Queen’s campus. “We spent all of 2002-03 developing the idea, planning how it would work, meeting with QUIC, student affairs, language offices, and alumni affairs, applying for grants and trying to get support in general,” said Bulpitt, now studying for a Master’s in public administration at Queen’s.

In March 2003, the Chat program started as a pilot project.

“We signed up about 500 people,” Bulpitt said. “It was a trial run to see how receptive the student population would be.” They ran out of the 500 buttons in about two weeks, and were able to get unding and grants from the university to start a full-fledged program in fall 2003.

“It was so good to see so many people get involved right from the beginning,” Bulpitt said. Chat’s mandate has continued its course on promoting multilingualism, adding five new languages this year: Hebrew, Farsi, Greek, swahili and swedish. There are now 22 language buttons in total. The colours representing each language are chosen at random to avoid any cultural bias.

“This is the first time we added new languages since the initial program kickoff,” said Ellie Clin, ArtSci ’08 and this year’s co-president. “We’re really pleased about that.”

But how much encouragement does it take to make the program work? Does it work on a regular basis?

Kathleen Hamilton, ArtSci ’07, has worn her buttons for about two years now—a French, spanish and apanese one—and said a few people have approached her about them.

“I remember one exchange student from Japan approached me about the [Japanese] button,” Hamilton said. “I’ve definitely had people at Queen’s say [to me], ‘you speak spanish?’ ”

But in terms of actual language practice, she said the opportunities have been limited.

“A lot of people asked me here to get the buttons, but I had nobody speaking spanish directly to me,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said she’s fluent in French and spanish, but not in Japanese. “In terms of meeting people who speak the same language, I think it’s valid,” Hamilton said on the effectiveness of the program.

David Myers, ArtSci ’08, agreed. “It’s a way to build more bridges and get outside of yourself, assuming that someone’s going to go up to someone random,” Myers said.

Myers wore French and english buttons for about two months. Then he said he found other buttons he preferred for his bag.

“I think it’s a nice way to meet new people, especially if you’re on exchange,” he said. “We’re really careful when we design our buttons—no colour is specific to a particular culture,” said Karen Levin, ArtSci ’07 and the other co-president.

“We run all of our buttons through Human rights [Office] and through QUIC to make sure that they’re OK.” The second part of the Chat mandate is the “philosophy of inclusivity.”

As a club that focuses on multilingualism, Chat puts emphasis on interest in languages, not fluency.

“You can be at any level—it’s something we try to stress in everything we do,” Bulpitt said. “If you just want to learn a language …you don’t have to now a word at all.”

By accepting all levels, Chat hopes to create a welcoming environment for students.

“So many international students have said to me that it’s important to recognize that students speak many different languages,” Bulpitt said. “Also, a lot of domestic students come from different backgrounds, or have relatives from ifferent countries. Having that appreciation and … that recognition is the first step.”

Edgar Bartolome, communications officer for Chat, agreed. “We can both be interested in language … then I can approach you because then we have something in common and we can build on that,” Bartolome said.

“Ever since I started wearing Chat buttons, I’ve met a lot of fun and dynamic people that way,” he said. Creating a multilingual link also “creates students,” Levin said. “If you’re an international student and you have an english button, what better way than to approach someone with an english button?”

The idea of inclusiveness has been implemented not only in linguistic terms, but by trying to involve other universities across the country.

“We concentrated a lot more on expansion,” Levin said. “It’s one of our major goals.” Bulpitt said interest from other universities was high right from the start.

“In May 2003, Michelle [Bourbonniere] and I went to the Ontario association of International educators annual regional Conference [at Brock University], and [the idea of Chat] was really well received,” Bulpitt said. “We’ve had interest from 10 or more universities across the country.”

In fall 2005, the Chat program officially started at Memorial university, and has become a major presence.

“During the first week of the [MPa] program, I met a girl from St. John’s, Newfoundland,” Bulpitt said. “And she said [to me], ‘those buttons are everywhere at Memorial.’ ”

At the time of the interview, Levin said she was also in the process of sending buttons to King’s College at Dalhousie University in Halifax, as well as to university of Guelph. There has also been interest from a few american universities, and from the National university of singapore, who e-mailed Chat about two years ago when they came across the Chat website.

“It’s such a small, easy idea, it’s good to see that it can spread,” Bulpitt said, adding that the Chat program at Queen’s developed a manual to help other universities build a solid basis.

Currently, there are about 3,300 participants signed up with the program at Queen’s. The numbers ome from an e-mail created when students pick up buttons for free from one of the booths in Kingston Hall, the International Program Office, Queen’s University International Centre or in Goodes Hall, and sign up with their e-mail addresses.

But since some people can just take the buttons without signing up, Levin said the demographic is difficult to pin down. Much of the demographic is concentrated in the Faculty of Arts and Science and Commerce, due to the linguistic nature of the programs and the requent exchanges that take place. Also on the e-mail list are professors, graduate students, medical students and law students, as well as members of the Kingston community.

Chat’s biggest event of the year, World beats Coffee House—now in its third year— took place at the Common Ground on Jan. 23.

Featuring performers from many cultures including an Indian semi-classical dancer, Korean music performance and an appearance by Kingston’s Wuawuanco Todos, a Brazillian samba group, the event packed the Common Ground, and piqued International students’ interest in the program.

“It’s very interesting … we don’t have [the program] in our home country,” said Melody Wong, an exchange student from Fudan University, who found out about the coffee house through an e-mail sent by QUIC.

Chat’s second annual event, coming upin March, is called “Just say Hi”—a simple event consisting of saying hello in a language that is indicated on people’s buttons. If you happen to say hello in the language identified on a button worn by one of the “secretpeople” from Chat walking around campus, you win a prize.

“Our main idea behind [the event] is to encourage people to actually use the buttons,” Levin said.

“So a lot of the time it’s just saying hi that encourages people.”

The Chat executives agree that self-initiative is important in making the program successful.

“It does work; you just have to be conducive to it working,” said Levin. “You have to be open-minded, and not be afraid to talk to people you don’t know.”

“And it doesn’t have to be an extensive conversation, either,” Bartolome said. “It doesn’t have to be like, ‘oh, can we sit down and practice?’ It can just be a few words.”

Bulpitt agreed. “If you do it every now and then, that makes a big difference,” he said.

“If you have over 2,000 people speaking different languages a little bit, and if that makes one more person feel comfortable coming from across the world, then that’s a big thing.”

Talking in Tongues

Mastering 22 languages would be a difficult feat, but learning a few lines of any language is all you need to get chatting. Here’s a guide to making a connection with different cultures.

“Hey, did you know that English is the language of love?”

Savez-vous que le Français est la langue de l’amour ?

Wist u dat het Nederlands de taal van liefde is?

Avete saputo che l’italiano è la lingua di amore?

¿Usted sabía que el español es la lengua del amor?

Você soube que o português é a língua do amor?


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