Bridget Weisenburger, Contributing Writer
When students at the University of Dallas discuss revisions of the Core, it is often suggested that the language requirement be reduced. Currently, students are required to complete up through the Intermediate II level in Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, French or Italian.
Language is traditionally a strong part of a liberal arts education. However, with changes in technology, some question the value of learning certain languages.
An interview with Dr. Elena Seidler, an Italian professor at UD, highlighted the value of studying not only the mechanics and vocabulary of a language, but also the culture and history of different countries.
BW: What is your philosophy on teaching Italian to students in the United States?
ES: I have always encouraged all my students to see the benefits of learning a foreign language as an informative, intellectual … growth opportunity. Learning a foreign language is a valuable opportunity, not only to discover another culture and be able to communicate in a foreign language, but eventually to learn a cross-cultural approach that goes beyond the linguistic aspect.
My main goal is not only to teach the Italian language but to encourage my students to learn how to communicate cross-culturally in order to go beyond the explicit Italian culture (what is visible) and to expand their knowledge in learning the implicit culture – the invisible sources of the culture itself such as [its] values, beliefs, customs and rituals.
BW: What led you to teach Italian?
ES: I was born and raised in Milan, where I lived for 30 years. When I moved to the U.S. 10 years ago after I got married, I was amazed by the deep interest and passion Americans had for my country, its culture and history.
I had the opportunity to teach Italian at Wayne State University due to my foreign languages degree, and my journey began.
The majority of students I teach are experiencing Italian for the first time, and seeing my students’ advancements in Italian is fulfilling and keeps me motivated.
BW: Has teaching in America given you a new perspective on your own country?
ES: I had the fortune to live in a multicultural upbringing (Italian and French) and this constant dual approach on life has always helped me to have a vision of my country that was not unilateral. When I moved to the U.S., this third culture enriched my vision of my country and it is a constant learning and enriching cross-cultural experience. I am able to see similarities and differences [between the countries] and always try to get the best of both worlds.
BW: What interested you in teaching at UD?
ES: Since the day of my interview – it was in English, French and Italian – I had an immediate sensation that UD was a special, intellectual and stimulating place. When I started teaching at UD, I realized how not only [faculty members were] profoundly passionate about teaching and researching, but also how students were dedicated and interested in learning and how they took their studies seriously. I saw it as an opportunity for me to be able to be part of their intellectual growth.
BW: Does the Rome program have any effect on how you teach?
ES: I am always thrilled to have discussions in class with my students when they come back from Rome and we share in class their experiences in Italy and Europe. It enhances the discussion during the lectures in the intermediate levels versus the first two semesters, which are more a preparation [for] their journey.
BW: Do you notice any changes in students after they return from Rome?
ES: Absolutely. It is a pleasure to see them grow from this intercultural experience and be able to share their excitement upon their return. They openly recognize their pride [in] being UD students and how amazingly and unforgettably this life experience will shape their life.
BW: What is the main idea you would like your students to take away from your class?
ES: During the four semesters, I would like my students to learn a cross-cultural approach when they relate to people of a different country and culture and always keep this in mind when they interact with them.
How people communicate across cultures is essential in the age of globalization.
Learning a foreign language goes beyond memorization of verbs and lists of vocabulary. It requires a cultural competence that is essential to communicate effectively in the foreign language.
Exposure to a different culture gives a student different perspectives about everyday life in another country.
BW: Do you have any advice for students going to Rome next semester?
ES: When people live abroad, their preparation begins at home. They make the choice to travel and live abroad and, as a consequence, it is inevitable that students will live in a cross-cultural dimension for a few months. Usually, cultural incidents and misunderstandings are not generally caused by the behavior of people of the host country, but how foreigners react to those actions and expect the locals to behave. A mutual respect and understanding of the possible differences are the keys to a successful intercultural journey.