By Natalie Davis Miller
Renée Kingcaid (L) and Mana Derakhshani
You can’t study a language without being a student of its culture. Renée Kingcaid and Mana Derakhshani are adamant about that. Renée Kingcaid is the director of modern languages, and Mana Derakhshani is the acting coordinator for intercultural studies and a professor of French at Saint Mary’s. The two share a kindred spirit and task: develop the Saint Mary’s woman into a culturally competent world citizen. Both modern languages and intercultural studies courses work toward that end.
“You can’t really separate language learning from culture learning; so while they [students] practice reading and writing in the target language they’re also learning it in the context of the culture. You can’t separate the two.”
Derakhshani is in an interesting position; she is at an intersection of the two departments as both a language professor and as the acting coordinator for intercultural studies, an administrative position. The genesis for the Intercultural Studies Program was a gathering of faculty, students, and student development professionals who wanted to address diversity in the curriculum. From their discussion, needs were voiced. “The need to have courses that educate students about other cultures was one,” reflects Derakhshani. “There was also the need for students who were interested in issues of intercultural studies, intercultural relations, different cultures, ethnic studies, or minority studies to have a home, a place where they could say, ‘This is where what I’m interested in is.’”
Rather than establishing particular ethnic study courses, the group decided to “look at what happens when various cultures and races come together, and to talk about that intersection,” explains Derakhshani. An interdisciplinary approach was taken with faculty coming from a number of different departments such as sociology, history, modern languages, and political sciences. “What we’re really doing is teaching students about culture and identity—how does culture form our identity? How do we perceive ourselves, and how do others look at us?” asks Derakhshani.
Intercultural Studies has had a measurable impact on the campus, and was the seed from which the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership was formed. Students can minor in Intercultural Studies.
“You can’t teach a foreign language independent of the culture because the foreign language is the first entrée into a different culture if you define it as a different way of thinking, a different way of conceiving the world, a different way of negotiating the world.”
Professor Renée Kingcaid has worked at Saint Mary’s College for 24 years. She uses the example of knowing how to address someone in another country—whether you use the formal or the informal—as one intercultural skill that has been routinely taught in language classes. The difference is the decision to be deliberate in assuring that there is an intercultural component to learning language.
“In a sense, for as long as we’ve been teaching the structures of the language, we’ve also implicitly been teaching the structures of the culture,” comments Kingcaid. “We’re now making that more explicit than ever before. This has quite a bit to do with looking at how to address a general audience about this centrality of language in the intercultural experience.”
Kingcaid lists skills such as knowing basic geography and key historical events as tools students need for functioning in a diverse society in a multicultural world. “The idea is that not only do you have to be able to speak the language, but you need to know something about where the person is coming from,” Kingcaid explains.
Modern Languages has recently expanded Spanish foreign study into Latin America with its new program in Cordoba, Argentina. Many of the faculty in the department direct foreign study programs, and part of teaching the language is preparing students for that foreign experience. “They still have to understand being in a foreign country makes them guests and their obligation is to adapt to the foreign country,” says Kingcaid. They need to “be able to engage with that culture so that the best thing happens for both them and the host.”
Modern Languages students also have the benefit of learning both language and cultural norms from their professors. “We’re a multicultural department,” says Kingcaid. “We’re very lucky because the nature of our discipline brings in people from all over the world. This is really a very exciting time in the department because we have a number of native speakers from Europe and Eastern Europe and everybody in the department is fluent in several languages, which, in terms of bringing a microcosm of the world to Saint Mary’s, we’re in pretty good shape.”