At HDS, a Culture of Language Learning

October 21, 2011
At HDS, a Culture of Language Learning

Lorraine Ledford

When HDS Professor Andrew Teeter was in college, he uncovered a fascination with the Hebrew Bible. He poured himself into his study of ancient Greek and Hebrew, even taking a summer job working the graveyard shift so he could resuscitate dead languages with homemade flashcards. Today, that early passion has bloomed into an entire intellectual world.

Teeter has taught at HDS since 2008 as Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. He researches early Jewish biblical interpretation and teaches on a range of topics related to the Hebrew Bible, and he is currently working on a book that examines ways in which early Jewish scribes purposefully altered scriptural texts for a variety of legal and exegetical ends.

For Teeter, languages are ends in and of themselves. He speaks rapturously about the intrinsic rewards that come with being able to engage a text in its own idiom, and he compares his experience learning to read the Hebrew Bible in the original with that of a nonnative English speaker coming to Shakespeare for the first time.

By the same token, though, Teeter sees language learning as a powerful set of tools. He tends not to talk about the languages that he speaks, but rather, the ones he works with. For Teeter, languages are sets of keys, ways of, as he explains, "accessing a different world, a different way of world-making, and a different system of understanding."

A Blend of Two Worlds

HDS Professor Beverly Kienzle echoes these sentiments. As the John H. Morison Professor of the Practice in Latin and Romance Languages and faculty director of the Language Studies Program, Kienzle sees HDS's mission as blending the rigor of university-based language instruction with the theological applicability of a more traditional seminary. In her eyes, the point of language instruction is not just to ensure that students can understand the words, but that they can, she says, "see how this is part of their work here and in the future."

Kienzle's position at HDS came about because of HDS students' hunger for language learning. After teaching summer language courses, her students urged the School to have her hired to teach Medieval Latin and Christianity. She was first hired in 1986, and seven years later she became director of the Language Studies Program.

During her time at the helm, Kienzle has overseen a series of changes to the School's language offerings, including an expansion of modern language offerings in French, German, and Spanish. (HDS currently offers or cross-lists instruction in 13 languages, in addition to the dozens more available university-wide.)

Kienzle notes that in recent years, HDS has hired more scholars working on primary texts in multiple languages. This development, combined with the recent revision of the language requirement for the master of divinity degree, has changed the culture of language learning at HDS.

Today, Kienzle sees much more interest in language learning among students. Students, she says, are more "energized and enthusiastic," and they see languages as "integral to their program of study and not just an add-on."

This cultural shift at the School has led to changes in long-standing traditions. In recent years, for example, the HDS Multireligious Service of Thanksgiving at Commencement has featured, in multiple languages, readings from original texts.

"The first time I attended one," says Kienzle, "it was a glorious moment for me."

Languages beyond the Academy

Bolaji Ogunsola is a first-year master of divinity degree student with a cosmopolitan past. She has lived in Cuba, Nigeria, and the United States, and as a result of these experiences, she has developed strong convictions about the relationship between language and ministry.

"I think it is extremely important for people to be able to receive ministry in their own language," she says. "I think there’s something beautiful in it."

This semester, Ogunsola is enrolled in Lorraine Ledford's course "Communication Skills for Spanish Ministry." The class, now in its second year, is designed to provide students heavy exposure to the sorts of theological, ethical, and interpersonal language necessary for practical ministerial tasks.

"I like that it's tailored to students' theological aspirations," Ogunsola explains, noting the instructor's "receptivity to meeting students' needs."

According to Ledford, the course came about precisely because students had expressed a need for this kind of vocationally focused learning. Last year's class, for example, included language instruction for students considering pastoral work in emergency settings, including post-hurricane relief. The course also focused on liturgical vocabulary for a variety of religious settings, including Christianity, Unitarian Universalism, and Buddhism.

The course also provides an opportunity for students to teach one another, in Spanish, about their academic or extracurricular passions. According to Ledford, the student presentations are the highlight of the class, "because everyone teaches us something that they love."

Summer Language Program

If term-time courses offer students an opportunity to apply languages in new ways, the HDS Summer Language Program (SLP) offers students the chance to study those languages from the ground up.

The SLP is an eight-week intensive program offering full-credit courses in seven languages. It is attended each year by 80 to 90 HDS students and an additional 10 or so non-HDS students.

Assistant Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs Karin Grundler-Whitacre is the director of the Summer Language Program. For Grundler-Whitacre, the program provides a chance for incoming students to get to know HDS, to make new friends, and to become acclimated to life in Cambridge before the school year begins.

Grundler-Whitacre, who also serves as an instructor in German, even takes her students out for beer and sausages at a German restaurant in Boston.

George Gonzalez, a tutor in the SLP, is amazed at the way that "students with little or no background in a language are reading and translating research-level texts by the end of an eight-week intensive course."

This, explains Grundler-Whitacre, is the point: not just to familiarize students with the basic grammar and vocabulary in a given language, but to empower them as scholars as well. By providing such intensive, focused study, students are able to do more than simply process the translation work of others. Rather, she says, "we enable our students to create original translations from source texts, but also to double-check or triple-check translations," allowing the students to develop their own theological insights and points of view.

Language Is the Key

It is precisely this sense of empowerment—both personally and professionally—that encourages many HDS students to go deeper into the study of languages than they ever thought they could. Katie Wrisley, a second-year student at HDS pursuing a master of theological studies degree, is an example of one such student.

"Whereas pages of Latin translations once terrified me, I'm now excited about approaching the texts," she says. Under her HDS instructors, she has become "hungry for words."

"I'm not content to simply learn the basics of a language anymore. I'm awed by the abilities of my superiors and want to soak in as much of the languages as possible."

For Wrisley, language learning isn't an abstract matter. Rather, it is deeply rooted in her conception of theology itself.

"Theology, as I know it, cannot be divorced from the study of words," she says. "The language courses at HDS have taught me that finding the connections between words from different tongues—and even from different centuries and modes of thought—can be a sacred, contemplative practice."

Wrisley's study of Latin and French has expanded her research interests. Today, she is in the midst of a project involving a fourteenth-century Franciscan confessio in Harvard's Houghton Library. She hopes to uncover new insights about the theology and thought of its purported editor, Franciscus de Mayronnis. Additionally, Wrisley is using her Latin and French skills to research Christology within Angela of Foligno's Latin corpus.

Tim Baker, a second-year doctor of theology candidate, has gained a strong grasp of Latin and Hebrew, languages that are central to his work on the history of medieval European Jewish and Christian exegetical traditions.

It is a facility with these languages that allows him, he explains, to try to "understand better how different religious communities employ and transform their respective languages . . . to investigate the nature of God."

Language instructor Zack Matus's experience with language study proved equally formative in his own professional maturation.

"When I first started my graduate studies as an MTS student at HDS, it was as a student in the Summer Language Program," Matus says. "The very idea that inside of a few months I would be reading the New Testament in Greek seemed amazing, so I knew it was something I wanted to try."

Matus took Advanced Greek and every HDS Latin course available. He says he knew then, as an aspiring medievalist, that his success would hinge on his ability to work with primary sources, and that his language preparation at HDS gave him the confidence and ability to seek out little-studied Latin texts.

"My work depends primarily on sources that have yet to be translated or even edited," he says. "I never would have been able to work with, or even find, the quirky and odd texts that fuel my research on medieval alchemy without the preparation I received at HDS."

As an instructor in Latin, Matus enjoys knowing that some of his own students may be only a few years away from discoveries of their own.

"At the very least, I hope that they realize that the opportunity to study languages at HDS is an opportunity to open up entire cultural worlds that are, for the most part, still closed to most."

—by Matt Bieber