April 5, 2024

Language Fair brings 500-plus students to Nebraska Union

Students representing Lincoln East in the poster contest pose for a picture next to their entry.
Deann Gayman | University Communication and Marketing

Deann Gayman | University Communication and Marketing
Students representing Lincoln East in the poster contest pose for a picture next to their entry.

The Nebraska Union was bustling with more than 500 new faces from 35 high schools across the Cornhusker State for the 45th annual Language Fair. Organized and hosted by the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, the event was held April 4.

In Swanson Auditorium, red flamenco skirts twisted around dancers from Columbus High School as they mixed Cuban rumba and flamenco movements. Prior to the dance, the competitors explained in English and Spanish the history of the dances in Cuba and the United States.

In other rooms within the Nebraska Union and the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center, high school students competed in drama, poetry, music, short film and poster events in Chinese, French, Japanese, Spanish and German, based on language skill level — levels 1, 2 and heritage speakers. For the first time, students competed in Arabic, in the poetry contest. Students could also take mini language lessons in Oldfather and Burnett halls on campus, visit the Kawasaki Reading Room and take Latin dance lessons. A community room offered a place for participants to meet up with friends and chat with about a dozen local nonprofits who work with the various refugee and immigrant communities in Lincoln — highlighting career paths for duel-language speakers.

The fair began a three-year hiatus in 2019, due to scheduling issues followed by the COVID pandemic. The annual event returned in 2022, and has grown each year since, said Nora Martin Peterson, chair of the department and associate professor of French.

“In past years, we’d get anywhere from 400 to 800 students, so we’re definitely growing back into our previous averages,” Peterson said. “But what I’ve noticed is that we’re attracting more schools. It used to be mostly Omaha and Lincoln schools, and we’re starting to see a lot more districts, from as far west as McCook.”

A group of four students from Columbus High School wear flamenco skirts as they dance to a Cuban folk song.
Kristina Jackson | University Communication and Marketing
A group of four students from Columbus High School wear flamenco skirts as they dance to a Cuban folk song.

For the department, the Language Fair serves varying purposes as outreach to Nebraska schools, recruitment, and an opportunity to celebrate languages and cultures.

“We are always excited to see high school students excited about language and culture before they start studying at a higher level at university,” Peterson said. “And we want to celebrate and encourage that. We want to show them how that makes them part of a larger community in Nebraska and at UNL.

“It highlights the work we do to bring language and culture to Nebraska high schools as part of our mission.”

Undergraduate and graduate students also get involved as volunteers, setting up spaces, helping guide the high school students through the Union and serving as judges.

“Some of them were participants as high schoolers, so it’s really fun for them to come help and see people,” Peterson said.

Avalon Mendoza, a sophomore at Lincoln Northwest, spent most of the morning in the Swanson Auditorium taking in the dance competition. As a heritage Spanish speaker, Mendoza entered the poster competition herself. The dance competition offered the chance to see representations of other cultures.

“I’m really immersed in Hispanic culture, and I wanted to see how other cultures celebrate,” Mendoza said. “There was a Japanese fan dance that was really cool.”

Another Japanese dance to the folk song, “Sakura Sakura,” was performed by a group from Lincoln Southwest. Kira Muckel, a junior, Lily Huynh, a sophomore, and Layna Bernt, a sophomore, said they spent several hours each day for two weeks perfecting the dance. They also learned lines and blocking for their entry into the Japanese drama competition with an excerpt from “Princess Kaguya.”

“We did a folk dance last year and loved it,” Muckel said. “Our teacher influenced us to try the drama competition, too. We invested a lot of time in Language Fair this year.”

“It’s not an every day occurrence to get to see so many different cultural events in one place,” Berndt said. “And it’s fun to step into another culture by wearing traditional dress and practicing the languge.

The group of three were excited to check out the Kawasaki Reading Room on the third floor of the Gaughan Multicultural Center, where they perused the books and media and tried Japanese tea.

An awards ceremony capped the day, where winners of each competition were announced. A full list of award winners will be available online in the coming days.