Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Making a difference: languages at SAIS Bologna

Today our guest contributor is Sara Gelmetti, director of the SAIS Bologna language program. As you can see from her profile, Sara studied at Trinity College Dublin and the University of Pavia, and taught at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin before coming to the Bologna Center two years ago. She oversees instruction of the eight languages taught here. Below she explores why the study of languages is considered so important at SAIS.

“Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey”. This statement made 51 years ago by linguist Roman Jakobson is relevant to today's SAIS students: To be an effective leader, you need to communicate with those around you. And to do that you must master their language.

Sara Gelmetti
You can make yourself understood without excelling in a language. But mastery allows you to connect in a more meaningful way with a culture, society and its people.

Languages force us to reflect on our perceptions and experiences. You may have noticed how the gender of words can differ from language to language, a reflection of that culture's vision of the world.

The same applies to colors, directions, time markers and verb modalities. Choosing between the indicative and subjunctive may seem a trite grammatical exercise to some, but to the educated speaker it opens up a realm of subtleties. You may not need to know these differences if you want to survive in the foreign country. But you need to master them if you want to make a difference.

That  is why a successful international career requires you to master at least one foreign language. The more languages you speak, the wider your professional horizon.

When I arrived at SAIS Bologna two years ago, I was impressed by the number of languages spoken by students. Many who already know two languages, who may have tested out of the foreign language proficiency exam, opt to study a third or fourth. Our students are world citizens, interested in deepening their understanding of other cultures. This is what makes the learning environment so enjoyable -- for those of us who teach, as well!

Our students know their careers will be in the international sphere, very probably in the country where the language they are learning is spoken. Could we hope for more motivated language learners?

I compare language learning to a journey in a foreign land: keep an open mind and relinquish your assumptions. The journey is enriched if you share it with travelers who contribute their experience and help create a sense of community.

I compare our classes to a voyage with a trusted travel guide: an expert teacher will help you on your journey, but be prepared to contribute. We do not allow students to audit our classes -- it's important that everyone participate actively in the classes. And for the same reason we cap the number of students per class at 10.

The language laboratory
Although SAIS Bologna is relatively small, we teach eight languages with a special focus on Europe. Last year we introduced higher level courses in Portuguese and Arabic, two recent additions to our program. The Russian language section is growing rapidly, while the more “traditional” languages such as French, German, Italian and Spanish are holding steadily. English for non-native speakers offers several paths to the highest proficiency level.

We take pride in our strong language program and motivated students. The mix of nationalities, academic backgrounds and work experiences creates a special learning environment.

Where else could you practice your language assignments among such a diverse group of students while sipping a cappuccino at the cafeteria?

Sara Gelmetti

Tomorrow: What are we looking for?

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