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A Cosmopolitan Campus

BYU’s language fair trades in cotton candy and carousels for speech competitions and spelling bees.

Picture this: you visit BYU and run into hundreds of middle school and high school students wearing sombreros or pointy German hats, speaking what seems like every language except English; the aroma of Chinese and Spanish food drifts out of the Jesse Knight Building as German music blasts from the front of the Joseph F. Smith Building. The sounds, sights, and smells can only mean one thing—BYU’s language fair. On April 18, 2024, BYU hosted three immersive language fairs for middle school and high school students. With the help of dedicated undergraduate volunteers, faculty members who teach German, Spanish, and Chinese organized a series of competitions and activities to help young students practice their language skills in context and learn more about the culture behind their language.

Chinese Language Fair

Two BYU students hold chopsticks in the front of a classroom.
Photo by Rachel Yu Liu

The Asian & Near Eastern Languages Department planned dozens of activities aimed at helping students practice Mandarin and learn more about Chinese culture. Throughout the event, students cycled through a myriad of workshops. Many activities required students to prepare speeches or presentations in Chinese before arriving at the fair. In one competition, for example, students gave five-minute speeches on the importance of creativity. Undergraduates leading the competition judged the contestants’ tones and sentence structures to rank each speech and award the highest scorers. Though many participants were initially intimidated by the challenge, students left the competition visibly proud of all they had accomplished.

In addition to competitions, students were introduced to various aspects of Chinese culture in each room they visited. In one activity, students attempted to master ping-pong, and in another, they learned to write their names in ancient Chinese characters. Undergraduates at each station encouraged participants to use Chinese wherever they went, helping young students gain confidence in their ability to speak Chinese in different situations. Chinese Professor Rachel Yu Liu (Chinese Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition) explains that the fair helped “students showcase their Chinese skills in various competitions and learn about Chinese culture.” By the end of the event, many students had learned Chinese songs, geography, and crafts with the help of these immersive activities; some even left with the title of chopstick master under their belt.

German Language Fair

This year, the German & Russian Department welcomed middle school and high school students from Utah, Montana, and Wyoming to join the language fair. Undergraduates at each booth dressed in traditional German attire, inviting the visiting students to try various drinks and dishes from German-speaking countries. As they wandered from booth to booth, some students even bought traditional German hats to take home with them.

German Fair activities emphasized the history and culture of all German-speaking countries—not just Germany—through a series of booths located outside of the Joseph F. Smith Building. For instance, students were introduced to Austrian history as they learned about the life story of Empress Elisabeth (or “Sisi”) of Austria. They discovered how her spirit of independence and her romance with Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria made her a beloved figure in Austrian history. Above all, German Professor Teresa Bell (Second Language Acquisition and Language Teaching) notes the fair’s ability to inspire young students, saying, “The German Fair brings students together in one beautiful setting where they can speak German with other students, faculty, and BYU student volunteers. Being able to attend the German Fair is one of the reasons junior high and high school students continue taking German.”

Spanish Language Fair

The Spanish & Portuguese Department created a series of activities aimed at helping students use their Spanish language skills in application and, especially, on the go. In one activity, students held impromptu conversations with BYU faculty and undergraduates. This experience gave students a space to take off the training wheels and practice their conversation skills while receiving personal mentoring.

In other events, students participated in spelling bees and reading tests; the winning students received small prizes as a reward for their hard work. Some students performed skits in Spanish, demonstrating the ability to apply language skills in a fun and upbeat environment. By the end of the fair, many Spanish-speaking students wandered the halls of the Jesse Knight Building speaking Spanish and sporting new sombreros.

The Language Fair That Inspires Learners

Though these fairs take place only once a year, they invite middle school and high school students into an academic community of language learners. As a result, hundreds of young language scholars can see the outcome of their hard work and take a peek at the culture behind the language. As undergraduate Macie Barney (Chinese, Psychology ’25) puts it, this year’s language fair “gave [the students] a chance to stretch outside of their comfort zones and do something hard.” She continues, “I could tell many of them were nervous in the beginning, but by the end, they were smiling and so proud of what they had accomplished.”