June 19, 2009 | Matt Decker
As a Taiwan-born professor of the German language, Professor Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim is used to a few double-takes.
"One of the goofiest things is when we do Fridays at Calvin,” said Dykstra-Pruim with a laugh. “I walk in as the representative of the German and Asian languages department, and everybody wants to talk to me about Chinese and Japanese, and all I can say is: ‘Good morning,’ and ‘Please pass the milk.’ I want to talk about German, so I say ‘No, no, if you want to talk about Chinese or Japanese, you need to talk to professor Herzberg’—which is such a German name you know?” said Dykstra-Pruim.
During these sessions Herzberg will sometimes stand next to her in his Chinese and Japanese outfits. “It must make a really great picture,” said Dykstra-Pruim. “For me, that is sort of like a little symbol of our increasingly multi-cultural world.”
Learning about the culture, said Dykstra-Pruim, is the main reason students learn a foreign language at all. "For most of the students, especially the ones who stop after the core requirement, 20 or 30 years from now they are not going to remember the ending of the genitive case masculine nouns,” said Dykstra-Pruim. “But if they made significant steps forward in their own cultural intelligence and their cultural-skills ability to see themselves as a product of a culture … Those skills are going to stick with them for life.”
Dykstra-Pruim said that 20 to 50 years ago, most German teachers were bad stereotypes of German teachers, meaning that they simply “stood up at the chalkboard and spouted rules at you, and you have to do translation exercises.” In the last five years, she said, that has really changed, and David Smith, chair of the German department, agrees:
"It has a lot more cultural content, so there is a lot more emphasis on getting to know how Germans think and how Germany functions, more cultural background,” he said.
Today Dykstra-Pruim is revolutionizing how foreign language is taught in the classroom: She has been working to make German teaching more interactive and culture-intensive as the chair of the task force on cultural learning for the American Association of Teachers of German.
Together with her colleagues, Dykstra-Pruim has produced Auf Geht’s!, which is colloquial German for “Let’s Go!,” which Smith calls the “cutting-edge” textbook for German teachers. Auf Geht’s! incorporates multimedia with textbook and handouts. In addition to this, Dykstra-Pruim has been putting on workshops for Calvin faculty and staff with the purpose of “building cultural intelligence.” (Auf Geht’s is also available in Web site form.)
Learning the German language was made easy by the wonderful people she encountered along the way: “I just really enjoyed working with the people that I got to know in my German classes as an undergraduate. The professors and the students just kind of won me over,” said Dykstra-Pruim with a smile. “I get to work with the neatest people. Not only at Calvin, but in the broader German community, it is really nice.”
Smith said that Dykstra-Pruim is very caring person:
"Penny is the person who brings chocolate to department meetings and flowers on people’s birthdays,” he said. “She is really someone who looks out socially for people—colleagues in the department or students in the department—and keeps an eye on how everyone is doing.” (Simply showing up at Dykstra-Pruim’s office for the interview is enough to be invited to partake in some tea.)
Dykstra-Pruim’s love for people was a large factor in her decision to pursue a teaching career as a senior at Calvin.
"I did like teaching, in fact I loved teaching,” said Dykstra-Pruim. “Senior year I was a teaching assistant in the interim (German 122). And I had so much fun, again, because of the people I got to work with, that I just realized I really love teaching.”
Because she lived the first five years of her life in Taiwan and subsequently spent time in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Dykstra-Pruim has garnered plenty of experience in other cultures.
She spent a year in Germany on a teaching Fulbright Scholarship which she applied for as a grad school student in pursuit of her master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dykstra-Pruim was a newlywed at the time and refers to her year in Germany as an “extended honeymoon.” She worked as an English Assistant in Heidelberg while her husband, current Calvin mathematics and statistics Professor Randall Pruim, worked on his research Fulbright.
Ever the language enthusiast, Dykstra-Pruim took Turkish classes while in Germany. “My failed attempt at Turkish,” she said in a fit of laughter, “It was kind of fun. But I can only say one thing in Turkish, and it is not very useful.”
In her spare time, which is rare, Dykstra-Pruim likes to knit, play music, fulfill her role as an elder with her church, write, and spend time with her three children.
"I have three wonderful kids. Nurturing those relationships actually takes a lot of time,” she said. Her children are 15, 13, and 10 years of age, and the oldest one is interested in Calvin. The 13-year-old, who is musically gifted, plays violin, clarinet, piano, sax, and other instruments in several different ensembles (orchestras, bands, quartets).
"We will have to wait and see what opportunities arise for her,” said Dykstra-Pruim. She said that she has exposed her children to other cultures by uprooting them, moving them, and putting them into different cultures and schools.
She “gave them experiences of being the sojourner in someone else's gates,” Dykstra-Pruim said.
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