D.C. Public Library Hosts Pilot Program Offering Free Foreign Language Courses

Atoussa Rahimi, an Iranian-born immigrant, instruct the Farsi class at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
Atoussa Rahimi, an Iranian-born immigrant, instruct the Farsi class at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. (By Timothy Wilson -- The Washington Post)
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By Timothy Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tom Doyle is so intrigued by language that he included a female character that spoke Farsi in the manuscript of his latest novel. But he wasn't sure whether he used the Persian language properly.

Doyle found free help at a D.C. public library, but not in a book. Under a new pilot program offered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial branch in Northwest, he was able to sign up for a free language class.

"I like languages," he said. "I wanted to kind of fact check what I did."

For the past six weeks, Doyle and dozens of other students have participated in a program sponsored by the library and Global Language Network, a nonprofit language services provider, to offer free foreign language courses to D.C. residents.

"It's an ideal partnership," said Pamel Stovall, associate library director. "We provide the venue. They agreed to have it be a free service."

For two hours each week beginning last month, volunteer instructors taught Farsi on Mondays, Spanish on Tuesdays and Russian on Saturdays. The last class is Aug. 29.

Library officials said it has not been determined whether another session will be offered, but residents have shown tremendous interest in the classes. Svetozar "Zarko" Palankov, assistant director for the languages network, said that more than 400 people signed up for the program but that classes were limited to 20 students so that people could get individual attention.

"Our whole approach is based upon teaching language through culture and culture through language," Palankov said. "We help people build relationships through language and culture. They're there because they have a personal interest in the language and culture. That creates an interesting chemistry in the classroom."

Global Language Network was founded in 2005 by Andrew Brown as a student organization on the campus of George Washington University and has grown into an organization that has more than 350 volunteers, who offer more than 50 foreign languages throughout the region.

Atoussa Rahimi, an Iranian-born immigrant who volunteered to instruct the Farsi class at the library, said she jumped at the chance to share her culture and was surprised by the high level of interest from her students.

"That made me feel very proud," said Rahimi, who came to the United States seven years ago as a medical sales representative. "I thought it would be hard. I found it was fun and very rewarding."

Silvia Pavia, a former staffer at the U.S. Department of Labor, said the class strengthened her interest in Middle Eastern culture at just the right price. "Free fits within my budget," she said.

Despite a proposed 4 percent budget cut looming next year for the library system, Stovall said, the program should remain free and might be offered to libraries throughout the District. Six new libraries are scheduled to open by next March and could provide additional space for the partnership to continue its growth.

"I believe it will be continued in neighborhood libraries," Stovall said. "I think it's going to be a pretty easy match. It really fits right into our focus area of making the library a destination point. It's our tradition to be a free service to the public, and we will continue to be."

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