Alejandro Galindo immigrated to the United States from Peru in 1984 and got a job as a storeroom clerk at the former Park Plaza Hotel on Temple Street. After it closed, he worked at a factory.
Then, five years ago, his career took an unlikely twist: He was hired to teach at Yale.
Galindo is a language partner at the Directed Independent Language Study Program. In scheduled sessions twice a week, he helps Yale undergraduates communicate in Quechua, an indigenous South American language. DILS is a not-for-credit program for undergraduate, graduate and professional students who are interested in studying a language not offered in Yale’s program.
Upon request for a particular foreign language, students are paired with language partners who provide a casual setting for cultural exchange. Since native speakers of these foreign languages are difficult to find, Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, director of the Center for Language Study, said, DILS searches for language partners both in the local community and through Yale’s resources.
The DILS program has offered 56 languages to students since its birth in 2001. Twenty languages are offered in the program this semester, including Twi, Haitian Creole and Mongolian.
Finding the right language partner with the most knowledge about the respective language sometimes means hiring locals residents, like Galindo, who have never taught before.
“The criteria for the language partners is not necessarily that they are instructors, but that they are educated, native speakers,” Van Deusen-Scholl said.
TEACHERS WORTH SEARCHING FOR
The former director and founder of DILS, Maria Kosinski — who is now starting a similar program at the University of Miami — said she began looking for language partners through the Office of International Students and Scholars, along with all of Yale’s professional schools and undergraduate departments. If this yielded no results, she wrote in an e-mail, then DILS opened up to the New Haven community.
She said their final options included nearby universities, the United Nations and embassies in Washington, D.C. Some cases even required a simple Google search, she said.
“Part of the fun was the bit of detective work I ended up doing,” she wrote.
But Kosinski said her search for a Quechua instructor ended right in the Elm City. Kosinski said she contacted the St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven because of its association with Peru. Church officials led her to Galindo, a member of the church.
In the basement of the Center for Language Study, Galindo’s classroom at the end of the hallway is just big enough to fit two black leather armchairs and one couch. There are no desks.
Two students in his class lounge on the furniture, with pens and notebooks in hand. The two students present, Andrew Cantu ’11, a Latin American Studies major, and Allison Tjemsland ’11, a history major, said they are learning Quechua because of their interest in indigenous cultures.
Cantu recalled that Galindo told him he was a “taco salesman” when they first met. Cantu said he does not ask a lot of questions about Galindo’s personal life.
“It’s kind of sketchy,” he told the News on the phone.
A stout man with gray hair, Galindo dresses casually in jeans and a blue fleece for class. He carefully picks his words in heavily accented English.
“For me it was wonderful,” he said, about his opportunity to engage students in Quechua. “I was waiting for this a long time.”
Other than his own mother and father, Galindo explained, nobody else in his family speaks the Native American language of South America. He said he relished the opportunity to keep Quechua alive.
LANGUAGE PARTNERS, NOT INSTRUCTORS
Despite his instructor’s passion for the language, Cantu said, working with Galindo can be challenging.
“He’s not a trained educator so I have to be really specific about what I want to know,” he said. “It’s difficult sometimes.”
The language partners, after all, are less responsible for teaching than they are for conversing with students in the respective language, Kosinski said. The DILS coordinators find the learning materials for students, she explained, although sometimes students will have a certain text they want to work with.
Still, the language partners must take part in an orientation program, Van Deusen-Scholl said in an e-mail.
Van Deusen-Scholl said DILS sometimes provides other training opportunities for the language partners. Galindo, for instance, said he attended a conference at the University of Illinois of people from all over the United States who teach Quechua.
“The function of the language partner is to model the language, to speak the language, to engage the student in conversation,” Kosinski said. Galindo, she added, “brings cultural insight and that is a great benefit for the DILS program.”
The DILS program has added on another option for finding native speakers to interact with students. Starting this year, current DILS coordinator Erin Kearney said the program is also experimenting with connecting students with language partners overseas via the Internet. The language partner for the Mapuche language, for instance, is actually in Chile and communicates with a Yale student in New Haven online.
The process for finding language partners, Kearney concluded, is “fascinating.” She described it as a “ripple effect.”
“You send out an e-mail, it’s like a pebble that you drop in the water and the waves go out,” Kosinski said.