Why Study Languages, Literatures, & Cultural Studies?
The Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies has a unique place within the College of Arts and Science at the convergence of the pragmatic acquisition of language and communication skills through to the analysis of literature and other cultural manifestations. Within this inherently multicultural body of inquiry lie two objectives from which stem all others: the enhancement of communication skills in the languages which we teach and the widening of inter-cultural awareness leading to a world-minded perspective fundamental to responsible world citizens. At the practical level, students gain the necessary building blocks to develop and expand their oral and written comprehension and expression in three of the world’s most spoken and studied languages: French, German and Spanish. At the more advanced level, studies in literature and culture in these languages allow students to develop critical thinking skills and perfect their oral fluency and written competence as they also learn the process through which meaning is arbitrarily and linguistically fabricated and can therefore be critically assessed and deconstructed or modified. Students also learn about the historical and contemporary world cultural realities most conducive to an understanding of the power structures which sustain divergent cultural practices as conveyed through language, literature and other cultural manifestations.
It should be noted that students who major in our programs will study a combination of courses in languages, literature and culture or cultural studies. The Department of Languages, Literatures, & Cultural Studies does not offer full independent degrees in any of these three areas of study. Our programs are rather a combination of these three fields in French or with a focus on German, French or Spanish within the scope of our Modern Languages programs.
Why Study Languages?
On our website, students will find much information on:
- The value of studying languages
- The large number and variety of careers for which language study prepares students
- The statistics which best demonstrate the importance and relevance of the languages which we teach
- The personal and professional rewards which language study can bring to students.
The dizzyingly fast development of venues for global communication has been brought into the homes of every computer owner worldwide via the Internet. Pending some fluency of any language, we can now communicate with any linguistic community and participate in the dialogue and discussion on current events of any country or area of the globe linked to the net. While these developments have made us aware of the extent to which English is used worldwide, they have also provided English and other speakers with a wealth of resources for stepping out beyond their monolingual status and for recognizing their responsibility as global citizens to also learn to communicate with other cultures in their own terms and in their own language. Of the many statistics regarding languages available on our web site, one in particular is worth emphasizing: It has been estimated that less than 6% of the world’s population speaks English as its primary language and, although twice as many may speak it as a second or third language, this still means that anywhere from 75% to 80% of the world population does not. It should also be noted that the growing orientation of psychological research toward neurology is making some very interesting discoveries regarding the cognitive distinctions between monolingual individuals vs. those who speak two or more languages. Several of these recent studies, which have focused on brain activity and on the onset of mental diseases related to aging, suggest that there are many more benefits associated with the acquisition of more than one language than previously thought.
Why Study Literature?
The Department of Languages, Literatures, & Cultural Studies offers courses in the literatures and film narratives of the languages which it teaches. Most French Literature courses are taught in French. Literature and film courses in German or Spanish are sometimes taught in the target language and sometimes in English. The Department also offers courses in Comparative Literature taught in English which are listed in the class search web site as LIT courses. Students who are new to Comparative Literature and wish to know more about it should consult the description of this field of study at the end of this document.
The study of Literature brings us into contact with the works judged by the global community as the voices of individuals who best represent the art of writing within their particular culture. Like other arts, literature expresses outstanding creative artistic achievement worthy of note and its value can be measured according to its purely aesthetic merit as a contribution to the world community of artists in their endeavour to create works of beauty. Unlike the other arts, however, the fact that Literature’s tools are words and language has historically extended its purpose in a more direct way to many other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, psychology, political studies, sociology, history and anthropology, to name only a few. As such, Literature occupies the place of a link between the Arts and the Humanities. For those individuals interested in several of the above areas of inquiry in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Literature offers a fascinating crossroads of study which can potentially encompass many of these fields. Its verbal medium has placed literature in the enviable position of having been, as an art form, one of the world’s greatest instigators of revolutionary social change. One need only think of the French writers of the 18th century whose works deeply influenced the French Revolution, although the world’s literatures abound with a multitude of other such examples. Literature not only has the power to change the world, it has in fact done just that throughout the centuries and in every corner of the globe. Since translators have long realized that their craft is a creative process which has the power to modify literary works from their original version, one is forced to recognize the importance of acquiring the necessary tools to fully appreciate and study these works in the original language in which they were written, whenever possible.
According to George Bernard Shaw “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” In keeping with this quote, one need only think of how deeply and negatively our lives would be impacted if there was no music, no film, no visual art, no literature or poetry. The fact that recent research on depression has encouraged the reading of literature as a potential cure for melancholia points to the valuable role which literature and the arts can play as an essential ingredient in a happy life. While many fields are notable for their immediate practical value and will instruct us regarding facts and ways to accomplish different concrete collective goals of value to humanity, it is in the vast and multi-dimensional field of art that many people find works which make life itself pleasurable and worthwhile. We know that everything can be considered an art when it is elevated to the level of excellence and while the world’s occupations, professions and crafts may differ in the degree to which artistic creativity is part of their exercise, the ubiquitous nature of language and words as well as their power in our everyday lives all unite to carve out a very unique and central place for literature as an art form. Literature can be viewed as humanity’s endeavour to elevate the realities, passions and “stuff” of life, which might otherwise be trivialized by their seemingly relentless repetition, to the level of human dignity which such individual and collective “passion plays” deserve.
Students of literature and of literary analysis develop a variety of important critical thinking skills applicable to virtually every domain of life, both private and professional where words and language come into play – i.e. just about every area of life. The study of words and language in their best literary expression is relevant to an ability to analyze all discourses and discursive practices with which we are faced on a daily basis. When one recognizes that power and power relations manifest themselves through language, studying literature can be viewed as one of the central ways through which individuals become “verbally fit”. Such “verbal fitness” empowers individuals to fully understand the nuances and implications of any speech act in terms of power relations, and to be able to respond effectively and in ways which can best help them to navigate the verbal labyrinths which surround their daily lives.
French, German and Spanish, as well as the Francophone and Hispanic literatures of cultures beyond Europe, combine to represent a veritable powerhouse of literary expression spanning many centuries and countries scattered throughout the world’s continents. As storehouses of the best expression of global human thought, as assessed by the cultures from which they sprang, they offer all students an extensive, exciting and varied field of study which can change their lives in powerful, meaningful and lasting ways.
Comparative Literature is the study of the literatures of various countries in their relationship to one another and to their global historical context. Studies in Comparative Literature can encompass a vast interdisciplinary sphere of study via inquiry into the relationship of these literatures to other areas of knowledge in the Humanities, Fine Arts and Social Sciences, such as the Arts, Philosophy, History, Psychology, Sociology, Politics etc. On one hand, it is the comparison of one literature with another or others but it is also the study of a comparison between literatures and other areas of human study and inquiry.
The study of Comparative Literature is global, transnational and inter-cultural in nature and emphasizes the importance of language, literature, and culture in humanity’s endeavour to understand the human condition. Due to the interdisciplinary and multi-national lens through which it studies its subject matter, it is a field of inquiry which has enormous potential to lead to greater global consciousness and sensitivity to the diversity and nature of cultures and the differences and similarities in their codes, languages, literatures and artistic expression. Contemporary studies in Comparative Literature emphasize a post-colonialist perspective through study of theory and may also compare literary texts to the narratives, artistic works and cultural manifestations of other media and domains such as film, theory, translation, photography, women and gender studies etc.
Why Study Culture & Cultural Studies?
There is always a basic cultural component to the study of languages and their literatures. As such, every course in our department will entail a study of culture to different degrees. However, at the more senior levels of study, many of our courses deal with subject matters and approaches of inquiry which are closely aligned to the goals of the fields of Cultural Studies. These areas include, among others, women and gender studies as well as post-colonialist culture and literature. Cultural Studies is a multi-disciplinary and theoretical approach to the study of values, power-relations, identities and virtually every cultural manifestation or area of human expression and study of a society. While the study of culture at its most elementary level entails the learning of factual information such as the cultural habits, history, art, music, film, dance, food etc. and practices of a society, Cultural Studies theorizes and problematizes such phenomena from an interdisciplinary perspective which can include, but is not limited to, political thought, philosophy and psychology. Cultural Studies has a general tendency to point to the arbitrary nature of many social practices and reexamines many social and conceptual conventions with the goal of freeing intellectual inquiry from traditional boundaries and divisions such as theoretical critique and cultural production as well as academic activity and social activism. Its emphasis lies on the understanding of the underlying power relations which inform cultural practices and its goals are aligned to a project of global social change most conducive to the establishment of humanist principles such as justice and freedom. European theorists have played a key role in the development of this field and range from the German thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School to the French theorists of the latter half of the 20th century.
Students interested in this field should note that an introductory course to Cultural Studies is offered in English at the 200 level by the English Department. Such a course is recommended by the Department of Languages, Literatures, & Cultural Studies to student interested in this area of study and can be useful to the Cultural Studies component of several of our senior culture and literature undergraduate courses and increasingly so for graduate studies in French and other languages.