Language as a cultural doorway: how one professor teaches French

THERE are no French majors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Or any graduate students in French. There is no foreign-language requirement. But enrollments in French courses at MIT have gone up 80 percent over five years, and the number of undergraduates who have chosen French as the focus of their humanities requirement has jumped from 33 to 103.

Behind this burst of popularity is Prof. Isabelle de Courtivron, one of two junior faculty members at MIT awarded the school's Harold E. Edgerton Award for excellence in teaching this year. Professor de Courtivron is an energetic woman , born in Paris and educated in the United States, whose hands speak French even when the language coming from her mouth is perfect English.

She is a scholar of 20th-century French women writers, an effective teacher in the classroom, and since 1978 an important part of MIT's efforts to rejuvenate its foreign-language programs.

''A lot of the burden of getting us on the right course fell on her shoulders ,'' says Edward Baron Turk, head of the foreign language and literature department. ''It was her commitment, her infectious enthusiasm for it that helped us all believe in it.''

What MIT has done to its foreign-language and literature curriculum is to break down the division traditionally made in most colleges between the language and the literature courses, mixing a large measure of cultural material into all its offerings.

''You don't have separate little blocks,'' says Professor de Courtivron. ''It is not: 'You learn the grammar this year, and then we hand you Moliere.' ''

Even students in the beginning classes are exposed to what might be called cultural artifacts: maps, ticket stubs, cartoons.

Unlike many universities, where separate staffs teach language and literature , at MIT everyone teaches both.

In an effort to attract students to language programs, some schools are going too far to make their courses appealing, de Courtivron says, and others are not flexible enough. ''The real compromise in the positive sense is to maintain standards and at the same time to adapt to making language and literature something that enriches students' lives,'' she adds.

Teaching the vocabulary and the syntax is only a small part of teaching a foreign language, she says. To stop there is to miss an opportunity to teach students what they most need to know. A language is a doorway to much more, she feels.

''A language is never separate from the way a culture perceives the world,'' Professor de Courtivron notes. ''One of the real problems with Americans is that they really approach the world without historical, political, and linguistic understanding.'' In her view, understanding another culture also helps students understand their own culture better.

And so, while her French IV students are learning the subjunctive, they will also, for instance, be reading articles in French about colonialism and discussing French attitudes toward colonialism, as well as their own - all in French of course.

It is important to address subjects in class that are interesting to college students, the professor says, and not to hand students what she calls ''the baby stuff'' often used in teaching languages.

''I think it is so badly done. It is done on the croissant and cafe au lait level,'' she observes. ''French culture has always been reduced to croissants, the guy with the beret on his head, and fashion. And really there is much more than that.''

Her classes are fast-paced. She teases a student who is wearing a suit and tie for a job interview and gets the class to discuss and vote on whether or not he should take the job. She rolls her eyes dramatically at a tardy student before moving on to the day's lesson.

''Fun has to be part of it,'' she says.

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