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Center Formed to Study Bilingualism

Lucy Yang -- The Tech
Eva Hoffman discusses her book Los in Translation: A Life in a New Language in a talk sponsored by the Center for Bilingual and Bicultural studies Wednesday.
By Karen E. Robinson

The Bilingual and Bicultural Studies Series, "Living in Two Languages," is the first event hosted by the new Center for Bilingual and Bicultural studies, a division of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.

The series includes five lectures from held between Feb. 17 and April 29. Speakers are bilingual authors who have written memoirs describing their "discoveries, setbacks, etc., in going from one language and culture to the next," said Isabelle de Courtivron, professor of Foreign Language and Literatures and organizer of the Center for Bilingual and Bicultural Studies.

Eva Hoffman spoke on her experiences coming to Canada from Poland as a 14-year-old Wednesday.

On Mar. 11, Nuala Ni Dhomhnail, author of "Pharaoh's Daughter," "Selected Poems: Rogha Danta","The Astrakhan Cloak," and "Me/Mise: Shoring up an Identity in Two Languages," will speak.

Various projects planned

Eventually, the center plans to invite visiting professors and host conferences on bilingualism.

Next fall, there will be a lecture series given by researchers studying the bilingual brain, said Professor Suzanne Flynn, who heads the department.

De Courtivron said that the center is also hoping to develop oral histories, such as those collected by the Department of Women's Studies, probably by pairing students with bicultural alumni.

"We have lots of ideas which link up with lots of other places around MIT," de Courtivron said. She hopes to do cross-disciplinary work with researchers in Women's Studies, Anthropology, and Linguistics, to name a few.

"There will be lots of interdisciplinary fertilization," Flynn said.

The Center currently offers one class and employs five students in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, but will grow quickly in the next few months and years, Flynn said. It will incorporate research at multiple levels, including much cross-disciplinary research, and create a community of undergraduates and other researchers studying bilingualism.

Course aimed at undergraduates

The lectures also serve to complement the coursework of the center's undergraduate class, Bilingualism: Language, Culture, and Experience (21F.018), which explores many aspects of bilingualism. Students read memoirs by many authors and "go back and forth between the scientific and historical aspects," said de Courtivron, who teaches the class along with Flynn. Students also study aspects from cognitive science of the bilingual brain, reading texts by Steven Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neurosciences.

There has been work done in the department with different media for about 15 years, and there are well-developed web-based programs for learning several languages already in existence. The center is "building on that to some degree," de Courtivron said. She expects it to always include "a lot of ongoing interactive projects in learning a second language."

Student participation sought

A major goal of the center is getting undergraduates involved in empirical research in linguistics, Flynn said.

De Courtivron referred to the recommendation of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning to incorporate teaching, research, and community into learning at MIT.

"Everyone is doing a great deal of thinking about how to reach the triad; we feel this is a good area to instantiate it. It fits well into the MIT vision of undergraduate education."

"MIT has a large number of students who were raised in families where English was not the first language, in this country or outside of it," de Courtivron said. "Many are interested in finding out more about their heritage so they're very interested in this."

Currently all the UROP students working in the center are bilingual, but bilingualism is not a prerequisite, Flynn said.

In a world of globalization, where students may need to speak several languages and move between cultures, students will increasingly look for opportunities such as those offered by the center, deCourtivron said.