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Their home is a revolving door for the world

Foreign exchange students enrich a US family's life

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The buzz at the Cohens' home is about oldest daughter Rachel's huge success recently on a college foreign-language exam.

Ginny Cohen says her daughter, a freshman at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, was no natural with languages. But she got the travel bug when the Cohens hosted a Swedish exchange student in 1996. Rachel, who was in junior high at the time, eventually spent a year of high school in the Netherlands.

Now, though she's never taken a course, her university considers her fluent in Dutch.

These days, a college semester abroad is de rigueur. But there's something to be said for exposing children to other cultures during more-formative years - even if only as a member of a host family.

"It can be more impactful in a lot of ways if it happens in high school, rather than in college," says Margaret Crocco, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College who develops social-studies curriculums.

The Cohens, who have been hosting foreign exchange students for more than a decade, have gone beyond exposing their two daughters to a foreign culture. Their home is a revolving door for people from all over the world.

Which makes following the conversation at their kitchen table like trying to read Tolstoy: At first, the sheer multitude of foreign names overwhelms.

Eventually, Ginny and her husband, Dana, pause to explain.

There's Heikki from Finland. He was here in '97 and '98. Sara from Sweden - that was '96. Before Sara, there was Anja from Germany and Carmen from Spain. Last year, it was Josefina from Argentina.

A few quick mnemonic notes prove helpful for the rest of the evening. For example, Sara was the Swedish siren who attracted queues of neighborhood boys. And Heikki (pronounced hi-key) was the high-IQ wonder who placed sixth in a national physics and math exam in Finland.

An extended family

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