Language Study Offers Multidimensions

Posted: January 23, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Catherine Ferraro

For students interested in learning another language, studying the language of their ancestors or becoming familiar with ancient cultures, the Department of Modern and Classical Languages offers a wide array of choices.

One of the more popular courses offered last fall was Martin Winkler’s CLAS 250 Classical Mythology. Winkler, a professor of classics, has been teaching the course at Mason for almost 18 years and believes that it exposes students to different belief systems and encourages tolerance.

The course introduces students to the major figures, themes and beliefs in archaic and classical Greek culture. It also serves as a key to Greek history, culture and literature, which in turn formed the basis of Western civilization. Students become familiar with ancient literary texts as well as modern scholarship on myth and classical literature. They also discuss the relevance of classical antiquity to modern society.

Throughout the course, students read and discuss several ancient tragedies, including Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound” and Euripides’ “Hippolytus” and “Bacchae.”

“I think this is one of the more popular classes in the department because students have been exposed to these types of stories at some point in their lives, either in high school or on television,” says Winkler.

“A course in mythology is ultimately a course in religion. It’s not as important to me that students agree with the various beliefs about which they are learning, but that they understand how these cultures have influenced our own society.”

The introductory course ITAL 110 Elementary Italian is another class that gained popularity during the fall semester. The class aims to develop students’ listening, speaking, reading and writing skills, says Kristina Olson, assistant professor of Italian.

As the popularity of the Italian language continues to grow in the United States, Olson notes that many second- and third-generation Italian Americans want to learn the language they were never taught at home.

Olson uses the communicative approach and teaches the class speaking Italian. She encourages students to actively participate and become comfortable sharing information about themselves and forming friendships using the Italian language. Students also watch movies, listen to songs about the Italian culture and use the language to practice grammar skills.

“There is so much about Italian culture that we don’t know. While I hope that students leave the class feeling comfortable speaking the language, more importantly, I hope they become interested in the culture and its similarities and differences to American culture,” says Olson. “I want them to see and understand Italy not in the eyes of a tourist.”

With a background in German literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Francien Markx, assistant professor of German, welcomed the opportunity to teach GERM 325 Fantasy and Imagination in German Literature for a second time.

Although the texts for the course vary each semester, last fall’s class centered on fairy tales in the German context. The course gives students an overview of German culture, including philosophy, politics, music and the visual arts. It also encourages them to make comparisons to literature in their native tongue or to aspects of culture they learn in other classes.

Throughout the semester, students read and compared fairy tales by authors such as Goethe, the Grimm brothers and Wilhelm Hauff; examined musical works by Mozart; and looked at more modern takes on the fairy tale model by authors E.T.A. Hoffman, Franz Kafka and Michael Ende.

“This course gives students an overview of prominent authors and genres in German literature since the Enlightenment. While these literary texts offer a rich source of information about the times in which they originated, they make the reader especially aware of the co-existence of different perspectives,” says Markx.

“I want students to understand that literary texts can be interpreted in many different ways, and that many different views are possible and valid. Literary texts make us pause and invite us to contemplate ourselves and the world around us.”

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