Cultural Immersion a ‘Fantastic’ Part of Army Officer’s Portuguese Language Studies at SDSU

Sam Allen LARC Student

Sam Allen, left, with friends at Brazil by the Bay, a restaurant and sports bar popular with SDSU’s Portuguese language students.

Sam Allen was a college freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when he went to Angola in 2015 through the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to learn about the West-African nation’s society and military.

“I studied as hard as I could for the trip which, though amazing, was incomplete to the extent I didn’t speak the language,” said Allen, now a field artillery officer in the 4th Infantry Division based out of Fort Carson, Colorado. “I focused the rest of my college career studying East Africa and its lingua franca, Swahili, but resolved to someday return to the language that characterized my first time abroad — Portuguese.”

Allen recently attained that goal through the Summer Intensive language program at San Diego State University’s Language Acquisition Resource Center. SDSU’s LARC is one of 24 institutions of higher education around the U.S. to operate a Project GO (Global Officer) program. Project GO, which makes the summer intensive language programs at LARC financially possible, is a Department of Defense initiative aimed at improving the language skills, regional expertise, and intercultural communicative competence of future military officers. The Project GO program is administered by the Institute of International Education (IIE) on behalf of the Defense Language and National Security Education Office (DLNSEO).

“Portuguese is a global language. I traveled to Africa three times in college, and saw studying Portuguese as a way to both deepen my regional knowledge and branch out to other continents,” said Allen. “Our fantastic instructors were from Brazil and Portugal, and we learned from the examples of their lives as well as narratives from throughout the Lusophone world. We were trained up quickly and well, and had a fantastic time hanging out with the Brazilian community in San Diego.”

Allen answered a few questions about his experience in the program, which allows students to complete an entire year of foreign-language studies in just five weeks, or two years in 11 weeks. Allen took the 11-week route.

How much Portuguese did you speak when you began the summer session?
Zero! Some other students already spoke Spanish (very similar), but I didn’t have that either. Somehow it all worked out, with the instructors focusing on our individual needs and those who already had a leg-up with Spanish being a great help. We had three instructors, each showcasing different dialects and accents of Portuguese – one from Rio, another from São Paulo, and another from Porto, Portugal.

Was there a teaching method you found particularly helpful in your acquisition of language?
I’ve heard it said that humiliation and repetition are the best mentors, but somehow our class became so close-knit that failing hard and getting into absurd conversations was fun and (relatively) pain-free. A lot of the instruction was role-playing, and it seemed that the crazier (and more vulgar, I have to say) we could act as a shopkeeper or customer, the more Portuguese we’d use and remember.

Larc Student Sam Allen

Sam Allen, left, with friends in Del Mar, Calif.

What’s the cultural immersion aspect of the program like?
LARC had instructors plan “cultural days” to supplement our regular curriculum, which for us included watching the World Cup at a Brazilian pub, learning how to play Footvolley (a popular Brazilian beach sport) and learning how to dance Capoeira. But often, the class would like the activity so much we would do it on our own, with the Brazilian pub becoming a hangout and Capoeira being the focus of our final project.

What do you think is the biggest strength of SDSU’s summer intensives?
I think you said it there — it’s intense. Every day is fully devoted to language, so you get a focus that’s tough to get out of normal classes. The small class sizes helped us stay focused and build lasting friendships too.

What advice would you give to someone considering studying a foreign language at SDSU’s LARC?
Trust your instructors — you don’t have to be a genius, but put your time in and they’ll get you from zero to 100 quicker than you’d believe. And enjoy yourself. San Diego is probably the most beautiful city I’ve ever visited (did I mention the beach?), so there’s no better place to relax after an intense day of studying.

Session 1 of SDSU’s Intensive Summer Language Program starts May 29; Session 2 starts July 8. Learn more at neverstoplearning.net/larc.