Sept. 10 colloquium to examine roles of history, culture in teaching and learning foreign languages

A Japanese language professor, not wanting to offend, avoids talking about emotionally-charged historical events related to World War II, while a German language professor reads part of a play that references East Germany and the Cold War, only to meet with yawning students who say that’s ancient history.

Organizers of a Sept. 10 colloquium at the University of California, Berkeley, say that, since the attacks of 9/11 – despite increased awareness of the importance of history and culture in language instruction – topics like these remain off limits in the classroom. They too often are shunned as a sensitive third rail of language instruction, or trivialized in favor of a view of foreign language instruction as an essentially ahistorical tool for acquiring grammar and vocabulary, or for exchanging information.

Some of the colloquium topics will include:

  • How foreign language instructors – whose professional status is vulnerable to student ratings, cultural politeness or budget cuts – can feel safe addressing sensitive issues of history and culture
  • How to aid the historical and cultural understanding of students and teachers from different generations and regions of the world
  • If there is enough time in a foreign language course to teach culture?
  • How to teach about commemorative events as more than footnotes or dates on a calendar

Claire Kramsch, professor of German and foreign language acquisition; Rick Kern, professor of French and director of the Berkeley Language Center; and Mark Kaiser, the center’s associate director and an instructor of Russian, are organizing this “History and Memory in Foreign Language” colloquium for UC Berkeley language professors, lecturers, graduate students and high school language teachers.

“Dreaming in Different Tongues: Languages and the Way We Think”

A special event of the College of Letters & Science as part of its “On The Same Page” program, moderated by UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg.

Location: Wheeler Auditorium
When: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday Sept. 14
Details: Free, open to the public

Panelists include actor John Cho (“Harold and Kumar,” “Star Trek”); Lily Wong Fillmore, professor emeriti UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education; Maxine Hong Kingston, author of “The Woman Warrior” and “I Love a Broad Margin to My Life”; and Stanford University psychology professor Lera Boroditsky.

 “Students read a (foreign language) text and project their own American values onto it,” said Kaiser.  “We want them to understand it from a different perspective. And we hope to sensitize teachers and open them to a notion of foreign language teaching that is much broader than correct grammar and form.”

“If we’re learning French or German or Swahili, isn’t this because we want to know what these people think, through their language?” added Kramsch. You can’t be a good teacher if you don’t let the students in on what it means to speak that language – on an emotional level.”

The all-day colloquium in Room 370 of Dwinelle Hall – free and open to the public – follows up on a recommendation by the Modern Language Association’s Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages, which advocates teaching functional language skills along with “critical language awareness” and “historical and political consciousness.”

Among the presenters will be UC Berkeley anthropology professor William Hanks, who will present a paper on the difficulties Spanish missionaries encountered when attempting to translate Spanish terms relating to the Christian religion into Maya words; UC Berkeley history professor Yuri Slezkine, who is Russian, will discuss the joy and challenge of teaching Russian history; and Washington University professor James Wertsch will talk about what texts say about collective memory.

In a roundtable on new teaching strategies, these social scientists will join two scholars of German and Japanese, as well as UC Berkeley language instructors in Persian, Chinese and German.

The program is being sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center, with support from UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities. More details are online.