Becoming global citizens
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of Julia Tedesco, Dan O’Hara, James Weaver, Mackenzie Campbell, Persephone Braham, Edgard Sankara, Barbara Moltchanov May 21, 2021
A foreign language education from UD has power to open minds — and change the world
When James Weaver began studying Japanese at the University of Delaware in 2003, he expected to memorize vocabulary, conjugate verbs and diagram sentences — typical curriculum for a foreign language student. What he did not expect? That his life would improve in fundamental ways.
“I became more comfortable in myself,” he said. “I was forced to grow up in my interactions with other people. I found it easier to make and maintain friendships. A substantial part of me changed.”
If you are wondering how all this came from a university course of study, that’s understandable. Most students enter college looking to obtain valuable skills and a rewarding job… but a stunning personal transformation? A lot to expect from your syllabi.
Yet, those in the know attest: A foregin language education from UD’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures (DLLC) will not merely expand one’s career prospects. It will also enrich one’s life and character — and maybe even the global community.
“It adds to your value as a human being,” said Edgard Sankara, associate professor of French and the speaker of five languages. “Such an education gives you a better understanding of yourself and the world around you.”
Among the factors that set UD’s programming apart is a focus not just on teaching language proficiency, but on instilling an understanding and appreciation for different places and customs — an ethos that permeates all course offerings, from Hebrew to Portuguese to Arabic.
“Our mission is to help students become global citizens,” said Meredith Ray, professor of Italian and interim chair of the department. “While proficiency is an important element of this, so is cultural competency.”
One way these dual goals are met is through a robust study abroad program — in 1923, UD became the first institution in the nation to establish such a program, and the options have only expanded since. During non-pandemic times, the University offers more than 100 opportunities in approximately 40 countries, from Cuba to Costa Rica to Australia. (The hope is to resume foreign travel as soon as it is safe, depending on the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic.)
It was on one such trip to Japan that Weaver underwent his own transformation, due largely to an important realization: The Japanese, he said, are extremely strategic when selecting their words, whereas Americans tend to favor a more direct communication style. For the first time, he saw that filtering oneself in certain social situations does not have to mean a person is necessarily being inauthentic or, worse yet, two-faced, but simply considerate of those around them.
“In America, it can feel inauthentic or disingenuous to repress parts of yourself,” said Weaver, now an instructor at UD’s English Language Institute. “But I learned I can emphasize or deemphasize certain aspects of my personality depending on who I am with, and this does not mean I’m putting on airs or becoming someone I’m not. What my experience taught me is that I am a multifaceted human.”
Over the course of this trip, Weaver also experienced prejudice for the first time — he was denied a student discount on a cell phone because of his foreign status — and this expanded his worldview.
“This is the only place as a straight, white male that I have endured discrimination,” he said. “And it was just a little taste, a minor inconvenience. Yet even that little bit made me so angry. And it forced me to consider: What about the people who go through this on a daily basis? What about those who are constantly being told: ‘You cannot be who you are?’.”
This increase in empathy is a typical result for those who tackle a foreign language education.
“It establishes a common humanity,” said Persephone Braham, professor of Spanish and Latin American and Iberian studies. “I think a lot of the xenophobia in this country is coming from a place of fear. But once you can defend yourself in a foreign language — have an argument, get around, negotiate or bargain — you become less afraid. And this is key to functioning as a U.S. citizen in a changing world.”
Take Mackenzie Campbell, who graduated in 2017 with proficiency in French, Italian and German thanks to a three languages major — UD is the only university in the nation to offer this course of study. As an undergraduate, she also earned a degree in international business before going on to earn a master’s from UD in French literature. Today, she is working toward a second master’s in linguistics and Arabic from the University of Chicago, with the goal of one day working for an educational technology company or perhaps a non-profit focused on international literacy development.
Until embarking on this course of study, she said, much of her experience hearing the German language came from World War II movies. And Arabic? Media representations of terrorists.
“But learning how to communicate something as simple and universal as, say, ‘I like cheese sandwiches’ in Arabic can make you realize: Most of these people talk about the same things I do with my friends and family,” Campbell said. “You adopt a different perspective. Entering college, I considered myself a pretty open-minded person, but my experiences at UD taught me how much I had to learn.”
Then there is Julia Tedesco, a 2018 graduate of UD’s international relations program who minored in Spanish, global studies and international business. This course of study now informs her work as program director for the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, where she works to uphold civil and human rights. In one case, she helped organize a Global Conference on Yemen, raising awareness for the war-turned-humanitarian crisis there, and she developed recommendations the U.S. government may employ to protect Yemeni children.
“Overall, both the recommendations and the event were successful in their impact,” Tedesco said. “I think appreciation of other languages, cultures and values makes initiatives such as this possible.”
In addition to humanitarianism, there are practical reasons for tackling a foreign language, including increased marketability. Between 2010 and 2015, the share of online job listings in the U.S. targeting bilingual employees rose by 15.7%, while the raw number of bilingual job postings more than doubled — a trend that will likely continue, according to a New American Economy study. Additionally, research shows command of a second language can increase one’s starting pay by 10 to 15%.
“We’ve had students go into government positions, hospitality, healthcare, finance, you name it,” said Ray. “The skills you gain are not just the skills of speaking another language, but everything that goes along with that: critical thinking, organization, sensitivity around cultural differences — qualities desirable in any field.”
Consider Dan O’Hara. A New York-based litigation lawyer, he graduated in 2016 able to speak Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese. While his three languages major was difficult — “Sometimes, after a day of classes, you would want to think only in abstract colors and shapes rather than concrete and articulate words,” he said — the degree opened multiple doors.
“Every interview I’ve been on, if the interviewer was even remotely interested in foreign languages or foreign language study, that was an automatic connection,” said O’Hara, who studied abroad in Spain, China and Brazil as an undergraduate. “I interviewed for a judge clerkship and was told: ‘I picked you because you like languages, and I like French’.”
So, yes, speaking foreign languages has enriched his life in multiple ways, O’Hara said, “but also the people who comprise the languages department at UD were really champions of me. My involvement with them enriched my life.”
For those looking to teach their language of choice post graduation, UD is the only institute of higher education in the state to offer a program for aspiring foreign language educators. But this support does not end with graduation — Blue Hens entering the field in Delaware can expect continued outreach from DLLC faculty. One example of this outreach is the Path to Proficiency. A collaborative professional development program that began in 2018, this initiative allows for coordination between UD experts and K-12 instructors in Delaware, ensuring a forum for connection between educators, a consistent approach to curriculum across grade levels and ultimately better retention of world language learners. For ongoing professional teacher support, UD faculty work closely with the state professional organization (the Delaware Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, or DECTFL) and the Delaware Department of Education.
“It is not enough to say to our students: ‘Alright, we’ve had you for four years, now enter the world and good luck’,” said Barbara Moltchanov, assistant professor of Spanish and foreign language pedagogy. “We want to support you and help you continue to grow, so that you can in turn support your own students, who will one day enter the profession. This is an important cycle.”
While the options awaiting students enrolled in DLLC may be vast and varied, a common thread connects these Blue Hens, at least according to a seasoned member of UD’s Asian Studies faculty.
“Immersion in another culture doesn’t merely provide students with insight into that culture, but into their own roots as well — into their own Americanness,” said Mark Miller, assistant professor of Japanese studies. “Many end up inspired to fix what’s broken, to make improvements where they can. They end up making their communities better.”