If we spoke a foreign
language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
The first modern foreign language requirement at Calvin College was English.
“Prior to 1886, all classes at Calvin were taught in Dutch,” said Calvin archivist Richard Harms. In the late 1880s, it became evident that preachers were going to have to begin preaching in English or risk alienating younger members. “English became a required course at Calvin [which was strictly a theological school at the time],” he said, “and students didn’t like it at all.”
While English was added to meet the specific needs of the church, German was added at the same time to expose students to a larger number of scholarly writings, especially in the area of theology. Thus, at the turn of the century, proficiency in reading Latin, Greek, Hebrew and German and proficiency in reading and speaking English were all required of the Calvin graduate.
Foreign language requirements for Calvin students have eased up considerably since then. However, proficiency in a foreign language remains a part of Calvin’s core curriculum today.
“I believe it was kept as a requirement throughout the early years because that’s what other university models had in them,” said Harms. “The European models had a strong component of foreign language competency, and our curriculum was modeled after those. It (competency in a foreign language) was required for graduate schools and was considered part of an elite education.”
During the early years of the college, foreign language education consisted of mainly learning grammar and translation into English. Later, speaking the language came into focus, and with it, the view that language learning was a type of skill.
“If language is seen just as a skill, German class can be like taking piano lessons,” said Calvin German professor David Smith. “In the new core curriculum (implemented in 2001), foreign language learning can be related to wider categories like cross-cultural communication.”
The re-categorization reflects a change in the teaching emphasis that has happened over the last few decades as well.
“Over the last three years, we have been trying to rearticulate why we’re here,” said Smith. “We have tried to set a fresh direction.”
That direction is outlined in a landmark publication on foreign language education, The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning (Eerdmans, 2000), co-authored by Smith and Calvin colleague Barbara Carvill. The book takes a new look at the reason for foreign language instruction, especially at a Christian liberal arts institution.
“… we propose that foreign language education prepare students for two related callings: to be a blessing as strangers in a foreign land, and to be hospitable strangers in their own homeland,” wrote Smith and Carvill. Doing so requires more than rote practice of verb tenses and pronoun cases.
“In loving the stranger, as Christ compels us to do, listening is as important as speaking,” said Smith. “Stories are very important — literature, yes — but people’s stories even more so.”
That’s why in intermediate German courses, students hear the story of Frau Kelbert delivered in her own voice via tape recording.
“She isn’t famous,” said Smith. “No one’s ever heard of her, but her oral recordings tell her story. And, yes, she speaks in the present and past perfect tenses, so the students have to have a mastery of structures, but they are drawn in to her story.
“Speaking out of her experience as a refugee, she speaks about what she would need to live well — bread, milk, a roof over her head and a church that spoke German. That tells our students something about her life, and we discuss what would be on their list.”
In other German classes, students are paired with German or Bosnian immigrants who speak German, to listen to the immigrants’ stories.
“We hear such great reports about these meetings,” said Carvill. “The immigrants say, ‘It is so good that somebody took me seriously. As a new immigrant, there isn’t anybody who is interested in our story, in who we are.’”
Finding out who someone is includes learning about their culture and their history, added French professor Otto Selles. French was added to the Calvin curriculum as an elective in 1907.
“When we say, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ we have to realize that your neighbor is not always like yourself,” he said. “Our goal is to give a cultural understanding through the language education.”
The recent conflict in Iraq brings to light the need to understand the Iraqis and their culture, but also that of our allies, he said.
“For us to understand what is going on in the fight between the U.S. and France, we have to understand the cultures,” he said. “We talk about why Europeans would look at things differently than we do.”
Larry Herzberg, Calvin professor of Chinese and Japanese, considers the same issues from an Asian perspective.
“One quarter of the world’s people speak Chinese or Japanese,” he said “We need to learn to speak their language, both literally and figuratively, so there will never be another Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Pearl Harbor.”
Chinese was added to the Calvin curriculum in 1984 and Japanese just a few years later. “To my knowledge we are the only Reformed Christian college that offers four years of instruction in either language,” said Herzberg. “Most comparable colleges offer not more than one year in either language; we offer four years in both.”
Starting with only six students, the department has grown to more than 100, with a major in Asian studies proposed for the future.
“Students have a variety of motives for taking Chinese and Japanese,” said Herzberg. “Japanese pop culture has gotten the attention of American students, and Chinese is the world’s most spoken language. The Chinese economy is growing faster than any in the world, and students are interested in being a part of the Chinese economic revolution. But my hope is that is goes beyond that. Calvin takes very seriously its mission to prepare students to transform the world for Christ. How are you able to effectively do that if you can’t ask for an apple from the store, much less begin to make friends with people of other cultures?”
Smith and Carvill wrote, “Our educational challenge is to educate students to welcome the other, the stranger, and to build cross-cultural connections that have the well-being and flourishing of the other at heart” (The Gift of the Stranger).
This challenge is taken on by the Spanish department, established in 1963, by providing more than 700 students this year with the ability to communicate to their Spanish-speaking neighbors.
“There’s a real need for Spanish-speaking social workers, nurses, doctors, psychologists, teachers and pastors,” said Edward Miller, Calvin Spanish professor. “Concentrating on being a blessing in someone’s life might lead to a career you never thought about.”
Wherever it leads, it is obvious that the call to hospitality toward our neighbors is a biblical one, emphasized Smith and Carvill. “We attempt to teach and learn a foreign language not merely as a linguistic system, but as a medium of communication used by human beings made in God’s image, and we see a foreign culture as shaped by responsible personal agents” (The Gift of the Stranger).
Hospitality-based language education certainly fits hand-in-glove with Calvin’s mission of purposeful renewal.
“My goal in the core sequence is for every student to hear a German say something that changes their life,” said Smith. “It’s a lot harder to be prejudiced if you have a German hero.”
— Lynn Bolt Rosendale is Calvin’s publications coordinator.
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