Opening Up the World

by Rosemary Lloyd

I write this editorial from my office on the rue du 4 Septembre in Aix-en-Provence, France, an Australian directing an academic program for students from three American universities. During this year, the students will study in French institutions of higher education, will make friends with numerous European students participating in the Erasmus project (the system that allows for transfer of credit between European universities), and will immerse themselves in a culture very different from that in which they grew up. They will notice, for instance, that whereas in the United States, the little green figure on the pedestrian crossings strides briskly across the road, the figure in Aix strolls along, hands in pockets. They’ll learn that the French are passionate collectors of books, that French is far from being the only language spoken in France, and that being able to speak to others in their own language opens up doors that otherwise remain resolutely closed. Above all, like students studying abroad everywhere, they are learning more about themselves as they learn about other cultures.

Rosemary Lloyd, Rudy Professor of French and Italian, Indiana University Bloomington

It’s not particularly unusual that so many of us leap at the chance to study and live abroad: all around the world, Indiana University students and faculty are working and studying, extending their understanding of their own disciplines in and through other languages. What is unusual is the enormous range, variety, and vitality of language courses at IU. In the country as a whole, language study has fallen by half in the last thirty years, but at IU it is possible to study more than sixty languages for their intrinsic interest or because they are needed as vehicles for other branches of learning. These range from the familiar to the esoteric, from those spoken in Europe, the Americas, and Asia, to those used in Africa and the Pacific.

Learning a second or additional language has long been considered an essential element of any adequate education, partly because it enhances our understanding of our first language, partly because it frees us from the intellectual and cultural isolation of the single-language speaker, partly because it draws on, develops, and strengthens skills used in a wide variety of other disciplines. Multiculturalism is a fact of modern existence, and language departments are particularly concerned with enabling students to engage with, understand, and appreciate differences in values, perceptions, and traditions.

The study of languages is always associated with the study of cultures and peoples. One major reason people choose to learn new languages is the enormous appeal exerted by the wide range of subjects such a discipline covers. As this issue of Research & Creative Activity shows, language departments typically include specialists in the science, psychology, and philosophy of language; in the civilizations and cultures of the countries, societies, or groups in which the languages are spoken; and in history and cinema, politics and literature, sociology and economics.

Research within foreign language departments at IU is varied and vibrant. We have specialists in the pedagogy and psychology of second-language acquisition questioning and refining teaching methods. Languages threatened with extinction—such as Picard, certain Creoles, and Yiddish—are being explored and annotated. IU faculty members in the language departments publish on film and music; the social implications of contemporary novelists, or the depiction of imaginary saints in the late Middle Ages; Brazilian autobiography and the interrelationship of painting and writing in Europe during the impressionist period. A growing number of courses delve into the ways languages and cultures change when they are transported, exploring, for instance, not just French as it is spoken and written within the hexagon of European France, but in the Pacific islands, in Canada and the United States, in Africa and in Vietnam. Explorations of cultures in exile follow Italian speakers to the Americas and Australia, or Spanish speakers throughout the New World.

This variety and vitality have greatly benefited from the way IU has encouraged developments in computer-enhanced learning and research. Faculty in language departments, and language specialists in other departments, draw on the new technologies not only for their own research but also to extend the ways students can master other languages. Computer-based learning allows individuals to work at their own speeds with an endlessly patient instructor, while Web sites enrich their experience of foreign cultures, and theInternet brings those cultures directly to the student’s desktop.

For many of us involved in the exploration of language, while these new technologies are exciting for the enormous and rapid access they give to foreign databanks, what is most challenging and satisfying is the human contact that can now take place across continents with such speed and ease. Through the Internet we can read the day’s newspapers from France or Mongolia. Using the SCOLA television channel, we can watch the news in Portuguese or Swedish, while e-mail allows us to communicate instantly with colleagues working in the countries of the languages we study. Through CD-ROMS and the Internet, students can hear poetry read by native speakers or explore the riches of the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, or the Prado in Madrid. Through electronic classrooms they can learn less-studied languages from a professor in a far-off university. Interactive video enables classes in less-studied languages to take place on campuses across the state.

All this allows students and scholars to bring to the exploration of language a sharper sense of the reality of living in a different culture. Above all, it brings home the challenges and pleasures of negotiating meaning in a language we may not have learned from birth but that we can nevertheless make our own. As the Austrian playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal asserted, language includes everything.

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