A Friendly Alliance

“As we interact with other cultures we learn a lot about ourselves,” says Ann Matney, Italian teacher at Alliance Française. In a room at the Emerson Cultural Center, students gather on comfy blue couches to learn languages, interact with different cultures and end up discovering something about themselves.

The Alliance Française was formed in Paris in 1883 and there are currently 1,135 Alliance Françaises in 130 countries, including Kazakhstan, Malawi, Mongolia and Cuba. In the United States alone there are 130 Alliances and more than 20,000 students. Each branch is run independently and bound with a common purpose to the Paris Alliance.

The Alliance has a double mission of teaching the French language and linking local cultures and the French-speaking world. Bozeman Alliance Director Brigitte Morris adds, “The Alliance Francaise is a non-profit international organization whose goals are to promote the French language and culture and to foster friendly relationships between the two people.”

Morris explains that she founded the Alliance Française de Bozeman in 1987 “as a multi-lingual language school to promote the French language and culture.” She soon found that Bozemanites had an interest in additional languages, so the Alliance “geared itself to promote more languages and cultures and expanded its center to a multi-language school and cultural center,” says Morris.

Six years ago the Alliance began offering Italian classes, then Spanish classes five years ago, and Chinese classes two years ago. Last year Portuguese classes began.

While Morris is tri-lingual, the non-French classes are taught by a variety of women with different backgrounds. Sally Sanchez, Spanish instructor, graduated from Montana State University with a degree in Spanish. She moved to Madrid, Spain with the intent of staying for six months. Nine years later she finally made it back to the United States.

“You think, ‘I’ll never use my Spanish here’,” laughs Sanchez, “but, little by little things come up.” After five years teaching at the Alliance, Sanchez is still excited about her classes and students. “They are fabulous people! I always learn something from them,” she asserts.

Sanchez teaches beginning and intermediate classes using books, hand outs and lots of conversation. Like all Alliance classes, they are small—six to twelve students. Many join the classes because they are hoping to use Spanish while traveling; others took language classes in high school or college and are looking to get back to something they enjoyed when they were younger.

Michelle Flenniken, one of Sanchez’s students, is planning a five month trip to Mexico, Central and South America when she finishes school in June. Traveling “is such a different experience when you can chat with people on the bus,” she says.

In addition to improving her Spanish, Flenniken has appreciated getting to know the other students. “I get to meet people that I normally wouldn’t run into in town.” After two years together in Sanchez’s class bonds have formed. Flenniken, classmate Linda Young and others get together at a coffee shop to speak Spanish and go over homework. Through presentations in class they have learned about each other’s lives outside of class.

Young first started taking Spanish when her son was going to Chile as an exchange student. As part of the exchange, the Youngs would be hosting a Chilean student, and she wanted to be able to communicate, both in South America, and with the exchange student staying in Bozeman.

Matney, the Italian teacher, also feels like languages have tied her more closely to others in Bozeman: “I’ve been able to get to know people better in the community by teaching them.”

Matney thinks part of the reason Alliance Française classes are so well attended is that Americans are drawn to European and South American cultures and expectations. “In America there isn’t a way of doing things that’s culturally agreed upon, or if there is, it’s really loose,” she explains.

As a seventeen-year-old, Matney spent a year in Italy and was struck by the culture shock she felt. “When you go into a coffee shop in America you can ask for anything, there are no limitations,” but she remembers asking for an Americano in Italy and being refused because the coffee seller didn’t think it would taste good. “There’s no way that would happen in America, if you want to buy something they make it happen.”

Matney believes “you feel less alone in a culture like that,” where the rules are spelled out and there is a specific way of doing things.

The Italian group bonds, appropriately, over coffee every Saturday at the International Coffee Traders, where they can order anything they want. “You can get so much grammar and use up that part of your brain,” Matney says, “then you need the repetition.”

The repetition that comes up when talking to students and instructors at the Alliance is how much they love languages and culture. The Alliance has grown because of Morris’s devotion to French and other cultures. As the volunteer Director she hosts French book clubs and panel discussions about different countries and cultural activities. Book discussions in Italian and Spanish start in January and March.

French-born Morris moved to Bozeman twenty years ago. She says, “I wanted to be involved with French culture, and later on with languages.” And she found a relatively large Francophile community in Montana. The Alliance now has 100 members and about 70 language students. They also offer translation services in French, Spanish and Italian. Morris says they have translated everything from scientific papers, to historical and legal documents.

Learning about languages, cultures, each other and themselves, students and instructors at the Alliance Française have gained much from speaking other languages. “I get so much out of it,” Sanchez says with a smile.

Balance
January 03, 2006

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