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Q&A with Stacey Katz Bourns

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Headshot of Stacey Katz Bourns

Stacey Katz Bourns

Dean Uta Poiger appointed Stacey Katz Bourns as director of the World Languages Center this summer. Bourns, who is also professor in the Department of Cultures, Societies and Global Studies, comes to Northeastern from Harvard University, where she was the director of language programs in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures since 2009. Before teaching at Harvard, she was an associate professor of French and the coordinator of the French Language Program at the University of Utah. Her research and publications have focused on grammar pedagogy, TA training, the role of applied linguists in language departments, sociolinguistics, spoken vs. written French, and information structure.

The following is a Q&A with Professor Bourns about the World Languages Center, its role at Northeastern, and learning a new language.

You’ve assumed the role of director of the World Languages Center. What are your plans for the center and what would you like it to look like in five years’ time?

Over the next five years, I would like to see the World Languages Center develop more computer-based teaching resources, including additional hybrid and online courses, as well as “language maintenance” resources to help students sustain their language skills while they are away from campus for any reason (co-ops, etc.).

“We want to cultivate connections across campus and to make the learning of languages more relevant to students who are majoring in various fields.” – Stacey Bourns

In addition, I would like the Center to develop new courses that focus on helping students develop deeper understandings of target cultures and, at the same time, helping them to improve their language skills.

My colleagues in the Center and I are also eager to make the Center more visible. We want to cultivate connections across campus and to make the learning of languages more relevant to students who are majoring in various fields. We believe that we have a lot to offer, for example, to business students who want to work with Chinese companies, or to architecture students who wish to do a co-op in Paris, or to engineers who plan to study in Germany. We want all Northeastern students to realize how important it is to possess a high level of language proficiency and keen cultural insights before they go abroad. We want to prepare them, both linguistically and intellectually, for their international experiences so that they can make the most of them.

What trends do you see in foreign language instruction in higher education right now? What challenges and opportunities exist for it?

Some of the trends today in foreign language instruction include the development of hybrid learning models and the integration of newer types of computer-assisted technologies. These technologies allow students to interact with the target language and native speakers in compelling ways. In addition to developing students’ linguistic proficiency, modern pedagogy contains a focus on cultivating students’ “translingual and transcultural competence”, as described in the 2007 MLA report as “placing value on the ability to operate between languages. Students are educated to function as informed and capable interlocutors with educated native speakers in the target language. They are also trained to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture.” What this means is that we want students to go beyond the study of grammar, vocabulary, and basic cultural phenomena to acquire a deeper understanding of the target language and culture. As a consequence, students discover and establish their own place in the world through their interactions with another language and culture.

“The co-op and study abroad programs in which our students participate allow them to use language and discover foreign cultures in unique and important ways.” – Stacey Bourns

One of the biggest challenges today to foreign language instruction is caused by misperceptions about language learning that are common in our society (and in others). Companies like Rosetta Stone and Duolingo promise quick and easy language learning, with very little effort required. Ads on the Internet promise that you can learn a language in 30 days! This kind of myth undermines expectations about learning another language and leads to disappointment and frustration. Language learning can and should indeed be enjoyable and gratifying; it is not, however, something that you can achieve in your spare time through playing with an app on your phone. Language apps can reinforce language learning, but they are not the magic solution to acquisition.

What makes the World Languages Center at Northeastern unique? 

The World Languages Center at Northeastern is unique because of the context(s) within which our students pursue their education. Northeastern University states that its mission is to “ground teaching and research in global engagement” and to cultivate global citizenship. The acquisition of a second or foreign language is essential to becoming a citizen of the world, and the Center is able to offer students crucial training before and after they venture abroad to study, work, or participate in service-learning. The co-op and study abroad programs in which our students participate allow them to use language and discover foreign cultures in unique and important ways. The World Languages Center draws on students’ needs and experiences and provides them with support and guidance as they develop into true global citizens. The following quotation, attributed to Nelson Mandela, suggests the importance of language in the cultivation of global relationships: ❝If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.❞

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