Achieving fluent instruction
Across from Mahiri Mwita's desk in Aaron Burr Hall hangs a white marker board. Written on it is a poem by one of his third-year Swahili students. The poem, part of the student's project to translate American verse into Swahili, tells the story of a young girl who is chided by her mother for eating with her hands.
This juxtaposition of American culture and Swahili language is why Mwita, a comparative literature professor originally from Kenya, loves teaching Swahili to beginners at Princeton.
By their third year of instruction, students who started learning Swahili at the University can read original texts and write their own. "There is no more rewarding experience for a teacher than that," Mwita said.
Mwita's view is by no means unique. Whether teaching introductory language or upper-level literature courses, foreign language faculty uniformly said that they are dedicated to expanding the intellectual outlook of their students.
The University employs a mixture of native and nonnative language speakers to teach its foreign languages. The instructors' ethnic and cultural diversity adds an increased depth to the teaching, professors said.
Chinese professor Perry Link began learning the language in the early 1960s as a sophomore at Harvard. Since he is not a native Chinese-speaker, Link understands the linguistic difficulties that many beginner students face.
"I have an advantage in being able to see and explain the mechanical differences between [Chinese and English]," he said.
Nonnative language teachers can inspire students to attempt languages traditionally considered tough for nonnative speakers to master.
People make the false assumption, Arabic professor Nancy Coffin said, that a person can't really speak a language fluently if they are not born speaking that language.
"I feel as if standing before people speaking to them in Arabic helps prove that wrong," the U.S.-born Coffin said. "It's possible for a nonnative speaker to gain a high degree of fluency, and I hope that seeing the progress I've made makes it more attainable."
Coffin began studying Arabic in college after a family she stayed with in Indonesia told her that reading the Koran in Arabic would help explain the cultural differences between Islamic and western culture.
Native speaking professors, though, are essential for language instruction programs at the University.
No matter how long one studies a language, Link said, "you still aren't a native speaker in your fundamental intuitions and usage." He continually discusses grammatical nuances with his colleagues, though he has been speaking Chinese for more than 40 years.
The presence of foreign faculty in Princeton also brings cross-cultural perspectives to campus. This is especially important, Mwita said, in dealing with a place like Africa, which is unfamiliar to most Americans.
"Americans are socialized to regard Africa almost like a mythical world," he said, adding that Hollywood perpetuates a false reality about the continent in movies like "Blood Diamond." This, Mwita added, creates a need for professors to "break that world of exoticism."
Challenging such perceptions is what makes language courses unique, French professor Christine Sagnier said. "If the language courses are completely disconnected from the cultural reality," she said, "it's just another course." According to Sagnier, an ideal language course would transcend grammar and engage students in cultural exploration.
Enhancing language class
Expanding cultural exploration in the curriculum is one of Sagnier's key objectives as she works on reconfiguring the French language curriculum. She sees technology and enhanced study abroad programs as ways "to bring a new culture into the classroom."
"Students here are very curious intellectually," Sagnier said. "You have to keep up with the challenge."
Such reorganization within the French department is only one example of growth occurring in many of Princeton's foreign language departments. As departments face increasing numbers of students enrolling in non-European languages, many faculty members are working on expanding opportunities for Princeton undergraduates.
As more students have begun to study Swahili, the demand for upper-level offerings in the language has increased. "My immediate challenge is to stabilize the advanced courses," Mwita said. He is also working on designing a study abroad program over the summer.
Mwita is currently writing a book about the challenges of teaching Swahili to American students. He thinks of his research as a complement to his teaching. "I don't know where one ends and the other begins," he said.
At first, he added, it was difficult to teach introductory Swahili classes after teaching higher-level classes in his native Kenya. He felt that he had to "step down, to adjust from teaching high-level Swahili."
But his perspective changed after seeing the "empowerment" of his students when they used the language in life outside the classroom. "This was a more practical and more rewarding experience than what I'd been doing," he said.
Link also enjoys seeing the progress of students in his introductory Chinese classes. "You can see that you've done something that's unequivocally worthwhile," he said. He compared a language teacher to a gardener; the professor plants a seed, nurtures it and marvels at its growth.
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