Required cultural classes

Before leaving Bellevue College, every one of its students needs to take a cultural diversity class. Up until six years ago, language classes fit into this category, but “fell off the wayside due to a new rating system of general education requirements,” according to Eva Norling, chair of the World Languages Department and a German and French teacher at BC. This notion is extremely absurd to me, as it is to Norling, who is my German teacher and has been working with the WL department to get language classes back on the list of cultural diversity.

At a committee hearing on April 22, Norling pleaded her case, but was once again rebuked by people who weren’t even experts on the subject. “There weren’t even any linguists there,” she said, and mentioned there were no students present either. There is a student chair of the board, but they were not present at the meeting. The reasons the committee didn’t allow language classes on the list was that they don’t teach power struggles and they are just a tool while cultural awareness is a competency. These things are not true.

One of the many problems with the argument against reinstating World Languages into the cultural diversity requirements is that it doesn’t teach power struggles. Norling, however, begs to differ. “When you first start learning another language, you feel like a six-year-old who doesn’t yet have the same language fluency as one expects to have in one’s native tongue,” she said, “this can be greatly uncomfortable and teaches humility and empathy.”

A language is a whole different way of thinking, and it’s sometimes extremely hard to learn the mechanics of a language if one doesn’t learn about the culture along the way. One example is the phrase “Hello, how are you?” In English, the “how are you” part is basically an extension of the “hello” part. People don’t actually want to know how you are doing, it is just the polite thing to say. In Germany, however, when people ask “how are you” they actually mean it, and it “requires a true and honest answer,” according to Norling.

Language classes also teach about traditions. Many of these classes are taught as though the student is going to go to the country where the language is spoken someday. Therefore, language textbooks can dedicate numerous pages in each chapter to talk about culture. These sections talk about how the “kissing on the cheek” greeting works and explain the differences between American and European families, friendships and school systems.

In my German class, Norling was going over new German vocabulary that had to do with different stores in the city, and we learned so much about how German cities work from simple words. For example, Norling explained that the post offices in Germany also have some of the same functions as a bank does and how no one uses paper checks in Germany.

Another thing we learned was that many German last names are determined based on what occupation one’s ancestor had. For example, if someone’s last name is “Baecker” they probably had an ancestor who was a baker. It’s an entirely different system from American and even other European cultures. In Hungary, names indicate where one’s ancestors were from. My last name, Nemesszeghy, roughly translates to “of the noble region” and the name “Falusi,” meaning “of a small town” is a common Hungarian last name. If all of this was learned from a vocabulary section, one could imagine what the other sections of the textbook and class sessions hold.

Most students do take a language class at some point or another, and to have it not count as a cultural diversity class when it clearly teaches both culture and power struggles is absurd and frustrating. Norling stated that if students and faculty members can band together, students will not have to take a class that doesn’t teach the language just to learn about culture. Sure, one can learn about culture without learning the language, but no one can learn a language without gaining some competence in culture. “Learning a language teaches you to step out of your own world and into another one,” said Norling, “It’s the beginning of expanding your mind, questioning stereotypes through additional inquiry.”