Connection through Communication

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By Ken Knox  |  Photography by Casey Martin

It’s challenging enough to teach foreign languages to those who have never been exposed to them before, but it’s doubly hard when the teachers themselves are strangers in a new land. Five adjunct professors at Gettysburg College, however, are currently rising to the challenge as part of the school’s linguistics curriculum. We caught up with them to find out what their biggest challenges are, what they think about America as experienced through the prism of Gettysburg, and what their experiences are teaching them about being better instructors.

Since as far back as her teenage years, Irene Monfort has had a fascination with foreign languages. Growing up in Alicante, a port city in the southeast region of Spain, she was fluent in both Spanish and Catalan, and began taking classes at private schools and other institutions to learn English when she was eight. It was her love for learning other languages that convinced Monfort to choose English translation and interpreting studies as her chosen field of study at the University of Alicante and, later, Nebrija University in Madrid.

Still, it wasn’t until after she won a scholarship to spend a year working as a Spanish assistant teacher at the Atlanta International School in Georgia that Monfort knew without a doubt that she wanted to teach foreign languages to others. And, after applying for a job she saw advertised on her university’s email, she’s getting to do that right here in Gettysburg.

Monfort is one of several adjunct professors from other countries who are currently teaching foreign languages to students at Gettysburg College via the college’s language studies program. Some, like Irene, are recent graduates with master’s degrees, while others are still in the process of earning their degrees. Most have had some kind of teaching experience before, either through their universities or via internships at other colleges, but for most, the gig at Gettysburg College represents their first exposure to the U.S.

Teaching the Teacher
For Zhifang Liu, a current master’s degree student at Beijing Normal University whose two semesters at Gettysburg College will satisfy the applied practice requirements of her degree program, the opportunity to come to the U.S. was especially attractive to her.

“There are many universities throughout the world that have a cooperation with mine, so there are different opportunities to go to different countries, but for me I was interested in America, so I applied for this opportunity,” says Liu, who chose the job at Gettysburg over one close to New York because she thought it would give her the most opportunity to learn about the U.S. “I liked Gettysburg because I didn’t know anything about it, and I wanted to learn the culture. In China, America is a very popular country.”

While the opportunity to teach in the U.S. is exciting for the professors, it also presents a few challenges as well: Not only are these professors teaching languages to others, they are still learning one themselves.

“As this is my first time in America, the main thing that I am learning here is the language,” says Pierre Gauthier, a current degree student who was also placed at Gettysburg College through cooperation with his school, Université de Nantes, in France. “The opportunity to be immersed in a foreign language and its cultural background is definitely the best way to quickly become fluent in it, even though I still get the feeling from time to time that I am struggling.”

Liu shares that feeling.

“Here, I must prepare a lot of words that I want to use to get my point across,” she says. “I passed my English language examination, but it can still be a struggle to make sure I’m emphasizing the right vowels and hitting the consonants so that my students understand me. I also try to use comparisons between Chinese culture and American culture so they understand the context of a word or phrase. It has to be familiar to them so they get it. When you’re teaching grammar, it can be very boring or hard, but if you use familiar examples it will draw the students in. So, I have to pay a lot more attention to the words and examples I use, because I might know what I’m talking about, but maybe they don’t.”

Making Language Fun 
For Melanie Rubio, a master’s graduate from Granada, Spain, who holds a degree in language teaching and currently teaches Spanish at Gettysburg College, reaching her students through positive reinforcement is a commitment born out of discouraging lessons learned in her own studies.

“I was really disappointed with many of my teachers’ methods to teach English when I was in high school, so I decided not to reproduce that environment when I became a teacher,” Rubio says. “To me, one of the most important things is to follow a communicative approach by actually interacting with other students in meaningful ways and authentic contexts, which is not
easy to do when students are so fearful of losing face in front of
their classmates.”

That’s why Rubio has made it a point to foster an environment in which students feel free to make mistakes and not give the right answers. “I try to forge an emotional connection students have with the Spanish language by creating a nice atmosphere where students do not feel threatened but supported if they make a mistake,” Rubio says, noting her use of “ice-breakers,” as well as video blogs, songs, ads, and YouTube videos to gauge her students’ interests and attitudes and bring the Spanish language closer to their personal lives.

Others, like German language teacher Ruth Gormon (whose alma mater, Freiburg University, put her in contact with Gettysburg College), take advantage of the tools offered in Gettysburg College’s Resource Center, to get through to their students. “Teaching at Gettysburg is really rewarding, because the students are very studious and well-behaved, and because teaching is more interactive in the U.S. than in Germany, where it’s more focused on theory than practice,” Gormon says. “I have learned many new methods, including more games and activities both inside and outside the classroom, to make teaching more innovative and fun.”

The experience is also teaching these professors how best to encourage their students to truly appreciate what they are learning. “I am becoming more aware of my techniques, strengths, and weaknesses, also learning to focus on what’s most important,” Rubio says. “I try to challenge myself all the time without reinventing the wheel, but broadening and deepening it into something that might turn out to be a more enriching and enjoyable experience for the student.”

Local Learning, Global Impact
The other professors agree that such an experience can only be beneficial in promoting global awareness and fostering more understanding between different cultures, nationalities, and backgrounds. This has already occurred for one of the professors, who says teaching in a town like Gettysburg has broadened her understanding of the U.S.

“When I first got here, it wasn’t as easy as I had been expecting, and I felt very isolated until I made a group of friends,” says Monfort, who is now in her fourth year teaching here. “I consider Gettysburg to be a second home to me now, and I miss it when I’m gone. Before I came to the U.S., I had a limited perspective of what I thought America was, because my friends and I only had a partial understanding of the United States from what we saw in movies or other types of media that really only depicted major cities. Being here has helped me grasp more of the full experience, and has given me a much more enriching perspective of all the multiple layers the U.S. has.”

Others agree, adding that such an experience for the professor can only mean better things for their students.

“I feel very free to teach here, and the students are responsible for their studies, but I think they need to know more about the cultural side of things,” says Liu, who laments the small sizes (between three and 10 students) of her Chinese language classrooms. “I think many more students are interested in learning [other languages], but maybe they think it’s too hard. So, we try to encourage students to be interested in other cultures, which is where I come in. As a foreigner teaching a foreign language in this country, I can fill in the blanks for them since I come from that culture. I can tell the students want to know more about the differences between our culture, and I’m very happy to be able to share my experience with them so they also know what makes us similar.”

At the end of the day, the professors say they realize that they’re teaching a lot more than just another language to the students of Gettysburg College.

“Teaching a language is not only about feeding your students with lists of words and grammatical patterns; it’s about getting to share a perspective with someone you thought you could not understand,” says Gauthier, who notes that in today’s increasingly divided world, such shared perspectives can only breed more connection in the world. “Being able to speak in a foreign language is great, but it’s merely the first step in another very long journey that goes far beyond the college classroom.”

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