On a rainy Tuesday morning, a group of five students—one man and four women, all of varying ages—stand on pieces of paper littered across the floor of Speak! Language Center’s main classroom. The papers signify different locales, like la discoteca, la stazione and il bar, and the students are meant to hop from one to the other, describing their journey. Their instructor, Christina Ball, looks on. Dressed in jeans, a sil-ver sparkly twin set and 3" heels with a fur ball at the peep toe, she looks more like their peer than their teacher. And, that’s part of her approach.
For Ball, the joy of language is tied deeply to the comforts of home and family.
“My earliest memory,” she says, “is of hearing my grandmother speak in Italian, tomatoes cooking and my grandfather playing guitar.” It was that mix of music, food and language that prompted a college trip to Rome, where she fell more deeply in love with the culture and decided to pursue a degree in Italian language and literature.
From there, Ball spent the next six years teaching at Yale and Wake Forest. When she began working at UVA, she realized Charlottesville could benefit from a full-service cul-ture center. In 2004, she launched Ecco Italy in the Main Street Market. Five years later, the business went from a one-woman, one-language operation to an 18-instructor, 10-language culture center. She “repotted”—as she calls it—the business in the Glass Building Downtown and renamed it Speak! Language Center, to include the languages she’d eventually add.
It was a gutsy move, taking a business model that, these days, is typically found online, and bringing it back to the classroom. But Ball fancies herself somewhat of a rebel, especially considering that most people with a Ph.D. use their degree to write or research for a living.
“I’ve always been one to think outside the box,” she says. “I just can’t give in to the Rosetta Stone approach.”