Language Learning Across the Curriculum

April 17, 2013

Liv Combe

Group discussion.
Sonja Boos, visiting assistant professor of German, center, is one of many professors who teaches courses in the Languages Across the Curriculum realm.
Photo credit: John Seyfried

If taught in a certain way, language classes can remain largely theoretical — students learn vocabulary and grammar in the controlled setting of the classroom, but will rarely have the opportunity to use their language skills in a real-world setting. At Oberlin, many faculty in the humanities have taken classroom-based language learning and infused it with a larger real-world context through an initiative called Languages Across the Curriculum (LxC).

The Oberlin Center for Languages and Cultures has helped faculty develop LxC courses since its inception in the fall of 2011 with the support of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Professor of History and Chair of Latin American Studies Steve Volk has championed the LxC approach since 2009, and the program has grown to involve dozens of faculty and departments, with many LxC courses available to students each semester.

LxC’s goal is straightforward: to more deeply engage the language departments and foreign language learning by integrating work in languages other than English into courses whose subject matter is based on areas of the world where those languages are spoken.

It might sound complicated, but it’s not. Last semester, an LxC course in the Hispanic studies and sociology departments was co-taught by Sebastiaan Faber, professor of Hispanic studies and OCLC director, and Associate Professor of Sociology Veljko Vujacic that combined Spanish with the English-taught subject matter. The course “Spain and Yugoslavia in the 20th Century” centered on the parallel 20th century histories of the two countries; Vujacic taught the main course, and Faber offered a supplementary Spanish-taught discussion section on the topic.

“Students often combine an interest in a language with an interest in history, politics, or anthropology, which are not typically subjects that are taught in Spanish or German or Italian or French,” says Faber. “This allows students to mobilize their language skills and interests more specifically in other subject areas.”

This semester, Associate Professor of History Annemarie Sammartino is teaching a new LxC course in the spring called “Politics and Culture in the Weimar Republic/Politik und Kultur in der Weimarer Republik,” for which students have the option of participating in a German-language supplemental reading and discussion group.

“In the end, I think that knowing German or even just being exposed to it really helps the class,” says Sammartino, who estimates that half of her class can read the language. “For those with reading German, being able to work in the language allows them to do both broader and deeper research papers than the non-German speakers who are reliant on translated material. For those without reading German, even just being exposed to the language helps them to think through certain issues of concepts which are (literally) hard to translate.”

“Students who study German learn that the precisely chosen words of a poem, essay, or philosophical treatise carry implications much deeper than the English translation would suggest,” agrees Sonja Boos, a visiting assistant professor of German. Her spring 2012 LxC course, “Franz Kafka: Lawyer, Comedian, Parablist,” was taught in English with a discussion section in German. “They become increasingly sensitive to the significance and complicated provenance of words and concepts in Germany’s intellectual and cultural history.”

“What’s been happening is that kids in the main section who do not go to the extra section start to feel a little bit jealous,” says Faber. “Like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, we’re missing out on something!’ And that’s one of the nice pedagogical side-effects.”

And the professors benefit along with the students. Ian MacMillen, a visiting assistant professor in the Russian and East European studies department, stresses the importance of constant engagement with a language, and how it can unexpectedly help other areas of study.

“I find that staying active with speaking and teaching foreign languages helps me with teaching English-language classes on their regions and cultures of origin,” says MacMillen. “I regularly rediscover nuances in concepts, phrases, song lyrics, and etymologies that might otherwise get lost in translation.”

These kinds of courses have been happening a lot more frequently at Oberlin than they have in the past because of a “push for interconnection,” says Faber. “One of the skills that we hope our students come out with is the ability to integrate knowledge and insight from different fields. And isn’t that what a liberal arts college is — that you come out with a coherent, interconnected sense of how things tie together.”

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