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2011 Romance Languages Commencement speech

RL Commencement speech
Nathalie Hester
Associate Department Head
Associate Professor of Italian and French
13 June 2011

In Ernest Hemingway’s short story, In another country, the protagonist and narrator, an American fighting alongside Italians in World War 1, has learned some Italian without formal study. He befriends an Italian major and thus recounts one of their conversations:

He [the Italian major] had complimented me on how I spoke Italian, and we talked together very easily. One day I had said that Italian seemed such an easy language to me that I could not take a great interest in it; everything was so easy to say. “Ah, yes,” the major said. “Why, then, do you not take up the use of grammar?” So we took up the use of grammar, and soon Italian was such a difficult language that I was afraid to talk to him until I had the grammar straight in my mind.[1]

I do not share this quote with you in order to extol the virtues of learning proper grammar or to underscore the challenges such learning poses. Rather, I want to draw attention to the process of learning a new language or languages, that fundamental process in which this class of 2011 is intensely engaged. It is, in essence, a process of growing awareness and self-awareness. The narrator in the story is convinced that he knows all that Italian has to offer, and his acquaintance gently and teasingly corrects his misperception. Self-consciousness concerning grammar may make the narrator a bit shier about speaking, but this comes with the benefit of greater understanding about language and how Italians may perceive his attempts at speaking. A friendly discussion about the building blocks of language, then, becomes a conversation about more profound matters of inter-cultural communication.

Graduates, this is similar to the journey you’ve undertaken in studying the Romance Languages. You have dedicated your time not just to improving your grammar in Spanish, French, or Italian, but to building your linguistic and cultural awareness and understanding of the complex and dynamic processes that manifest themselves when we move outside our linguistic and cultural comfort zones. Such understanding is crucial to becoming informed and responsible global citizens, and also to living, working, and pursuing a career in an increasingly multilingual world. As linguistic researchers note, “the share of the world’s population that speaks English as a native language is falling…Monolingual speakers of any variety of English…will experience increasingly difficulty in employment and political life, and are likely to become bewildered by many aspects of society and culture around them.”[2] Indeed, a plethora of languages continues to exist within our national borders. In the United States, almost 20% of households are bilingual or plurilingual. Furthermore, internationally, by 2050, Chinese languages will predominate, with Hindi-Urdu and Arabic surpassing English, and Spanish almost at the same level. English will continue to occupy a central place in international communication, but as a second or third language (if not more) to most of the world.

Certainly our global environment, swiftly advancing technology, and the rapidity and ease with which we come into actual and virtual contact with a multitude of cultures other than our own, make the imperative of understanding across and among regions and countries all the more obvious and urgent. The words of the French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne, an avid language learner himself, offer an example and ideal of cross-cultural knowledge that is still relevant today. He advocates for embracing other cultures and maintaining a healthy critical distance vis-à-vis one’s own culture:

I consider all men my compatriots, and embrace a Pole as I do a Frenchman, setting this national bond after the universal and common one… I travel very fed up with our own ways, [and I do not look for Frenchmen] in Sicily—I have enough of them at home; I rather look for Greeks and Persians; these men I talk to, I study; it is to them I attune and apply myself. And what is more, it seems to me that I have encountered hardly any customs that are not as good as ours…No pleasure has any savor for me without communication.[3]

A good humanist, Montaigne seeks edification both in conversations with inhabitants of other countries and in the study of ancient civilizations, including the history of Greeks and Persians in Sicily.  Being a proper citizen of the world means having knowledge of the present and the past.

Like Montaigne, those of you graduating today reflect and embody openness towards the world around you. Students in Romance Languages at the University of Oregon, in ever-growing numbers, have shown their commitment to language learning and their understanding that language is the very grounding of our perception of our environment. Graduates, you have combined linguistic and cultural proficiency with training in textual analysis and critical thinking and, for some of you, study in another field or program: international studies, political science, comparative literature, journalism, Latin American studies, and European Studies. Many of you have studied in Querétaro, Lyon, Ferrara, Sevilla, Poitiers, Siena, Lyon, Pavia, Angers.

Your skills will help you in whichever professional avenue you choose to pursue, in expected and unexpected ways. Perhaps I say this with some bias, but I trust that parents, family, friends, and colleagues will indulge me when I state that the graduates right here in this space—in Romance Languages and Literatures—best represent the future.

To help convince you—if that’s even necessary–let me provide a brief sample of what you have studied in Romance Language classrooms this past academic year:

You have become familiar with the plays of Molière and Racine to better understand the intricacies of the court of Louis XIV. You have read sub-Saharan African novels by Mongo Béti and Ferdinand Oyono that tell of the legacies of colonialism. You have become familiar with the history of the Spanish language. You have read autobiographical writing by women from Quebec and Martinique. You have delved into the stunning Baroque poetry of Luis de Góngora and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. You have unpacked the rhetoric of Christopher Columbus’ diaries and logbook. You have gained knowledge of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities living in medieval Spain. You have learned about bilingual communities in contemporary Latin America and along the US-Mexico border, and considered how language and sense of self are intricately entwined. You have delighted in the bawdy and astute short stories of the medieval Boccaccio. You have considered poetic representations of the modern city in the works of Rosario Castellanos and Rubén Darío. You have learned about representations of the Mexican Civil War and testimonials of the Shoah. You have studied detective novels, mysticism in the early modern Hispanic world, the link between agricultural practices and artistic production in Latin America, and read Puerto Rican women writers such as Rosario Ferré and Luisa Capetillo. You have grappled with the idea of Europe and how to attempt to define it. You have examined the cultural legacies of the Haitian Revolution of the late 18th century and considered its impact on the political and cultural imagination of the modern world.

This list makes clear that studying Romance Languages means studying the world: across 5 continents, through many centuries, and from a variety of perspectives: historical, literary, political, aesthetic, linguistic.

What’s perhaps best of all is that you have developed your own interpretations of the potential impact and implications of your studies. And you are the least likely to become, as the linguist I quoted earlier said, “bewildered by difference.” To the contrary, you are inspired by it.

Graduates, you can be proud of your accomplishments, but remember that this process of gaining awareness and self-awareness is ongoing. As your post-graduate life commences today, consider that with knowledge comes responsibility: to continue educating yourselves, and also those around you. The Romance world is a magnificent one, but also one that faces many challenges; economic, social, political, and environmental. You can bring your knowledge to bear on easing such challenges.

Linguistic and cultural richness is one of the most rewarding and vibrant elements of our existence, and of our experience of life in all its planetary scope. If we think back to Hemingway’s narrator, and how a discussion about grammar was really about more crucial matters of inter-cultural understanding, then I’ll end by saying: may you all keep using grammar.


[1] http://apo.cmaisonneuve.qc.ca/villanova/hemingway/original.htm

[2] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4387421/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/english-wont-dominate-world-language/.

[3] The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Transl. Donald Frame. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976. p. 743, p.754.