World Languages and Literatures, Undergraduate

World Languages and Literatures: For travellers at heart

August 12, 2020

Professor Melek Ortabasi is serious when she says that studying a foreign language and literatures from around the world can give you superpowers. 

Ortabasi, the Chair of the newly formed Department of World Languages and Literatures (WLL), says those who study language and literature develop empathy, nurture their imaginations and critical thinking, while also gaining the practical skill of communicating in a foreign language. And in today’s world, those skills almost qualify as superpowers.

WLL was formed through the merger of the Language Training Institute and the World Literature Program. Over the years, both units provided a home to students yearning to “travel the world” through language and literature courses at SFU.  

Below, Ortabasi shares her insights on the new department and how studying languages and literatures can make you stand out from the crowd. 

How is the new Department of World Languages and Literatures greater than the sum of its parts?

As they were, the World Literature Program and Language Training Institute had a lot in common. We shared the keen awareness that not everything in the world happens in English. Those of us who teach language are literally on the front lines of teaching students to engage with other cultures. Those of us who teach literature understand world literature as a discipline that necessarily takes a cross-cultural approach to understanding literature. So, we’re a good match. 

In World Literature we’d always encouraged our students to learn another language while they study. Now that we’re all together in one department, that encourages even more cross-fertilization in students’ learning. 

Learning to speak a different language and gaining insight into that language’s grammar and mechanics helps students deepen their understanding of a story and its meaning across cultures, even when they read in English translation. Things don’t translate directly – it’s never word for word -- so when a student has a working understanding of another language, they can read a translated text more profoundly. 

Vice-versa, reading the stories of a given culture can indirectly improve your fluency and comprehension when you’re acquiring a new language. Even though we’re all human, every language encapsulates a different way of looking at the world—and literature captures that view in a nuanced, complex way. That’s why studying world literature and languages, whether separately or in parallel, enhances and complements students’ learning in any field. There’s no question that the developed empathy and imaginative skills that result are concrete, positive assets in a student’s tool kit. 

Ortabasi, a traveller at heart herself, in Japan a few years ago.

What kinds of students gravitate toward WLL? 

Our department is where you come when you’re a traveller at heart. Our students want to learn a new language or languages and they are interested in stories from around the world and how those stories shape the way we live. 

When you hear and tell stories that are outside your usual frame of mind, you are better able to deal with and navigate different frames of reference. For example, identifying and understanding misinformation and how it spreads, or how critical thinking is an essential skill in identifying “fake news.” Reflecting on and understanding how language works really matters; what words we use can be a matter of life or death, of war or peace. 

Our department is for the pragmatic student. While people may not be pursuing much global travel these days, all of us live and work in a community that is very multicultural. Learning another language allows you to better communicate with people across cultures. And in most contexts, this is a necessity, not a choice. For example, you could be teaching in one of our diverse Lower Mainland schools; working in an organization helping newcomers to Canada find housing; or working as a consultant who researches for and interacts with a company’s international stakeholders. In all cases, you have to be able communicate cross-culturally to do your job well. 

We hear this talk of these being the “soft skills” of the arts and I would argue quite the opposite: these are “hard skills,” applicable in so many places. And once you’ve learned them, no one can take them away from you. 

Is it true that studying languages and literature together can give you superpowers?

Absolutely! All kidding aside, there is hard data that tells us language specialists are in high demand, that employers prefer to hire people who can think and communicate cross-culturally, and that the jobs of tomorrow are being created by those who can think creatively to adapt to unanticipated change and new global realities. 

As I mentioned before, studying language and literature together fosters empathy and imagination—two things the world desperately needs right now. For example, during the COVID-19 global health crisis, it is people who possess these qualities who can help nations communicate and work together to share vital information about vaccine development or effectively relay information about mask-wearing. 

When you realize what it’s like to learn a different language or when you’re reading a story written by a person with a completely different background and culture than you, you’re learning to see the world through a different lens. These abilities should not be taken for granted – and are employable skills.

Why study World Languages and Literatures now? 

I’d answer with a rhetorical question: what are you waiting for? As much as ever, the world is rapidly changing as global events shake up societies and politics. International borders may remain closed for some time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the globalized world keeps turning. Multicultural societies survive, many thrive, and people continue to live, learn and communicate in complex ways. 

The world needs everyday superheroes! Studying world languages and literatures will help you navigate and lead others in this globalized world and its evolving intricacy. Are you ready to discover your superpower?