back to news Feb. 1, 2021

Janice Aski and Jhumpa Lahiri discuss the power of language learning

Janice Aski, professor in the Department of French and Italian, was searching for a familiar face to feature in videos alongside the 5th edition of the Italian elementary language textbook she was co-authoring. She wanted someone who’d learned Italian, but she also was hoping for a person who could speak to the diversity of world languages.

Jhumpa Lahiri, she thought, would be a perfect fit. Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author known for her books Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, grew up speaking English and Bengali. As an adult, she moved to Rome, learned Italian and published various works in the language.

Aski thought it was a long shot, but she and her editor at McGraw Hill sent a letter to Lahiri’s publicist. She was thrilled when Lahiri said yes.

The collaboration resulted in a series of videos that capture an interview with Lahiri in which she explores how world languages contribute uniquely to the development of intercultural competence and personal growth.

Author Jhumpa Lahiri in one of the her videos with McGraw Hill, reading from her book In Other Words, which she wrote in Italian.

“It was such beautiful content to work with because she's such a profound thinker,” Aski said.

Just like undergraduate students taking a new language in college, Lahiri had felt all the discomforts, insecurities and vulnerabilities of learning Italian when she moved to Rome as an adult. That experience meant she was able to talk about the two ways learning a foreign language shapes a person: how people understand themselves and how they understand others.

One of Aski’s goals for these videos is to address misconceptions about the value of learning another language — a few semesters, after all, may enable someone to navigate in another country, but that is nowhere near enough time to become fluent.

Learning a new language, particularly in an immersion environment, changes students’ understanding of the world because they’re put into a new, vulnerable position, and it alters their perception of their own self and their own culture.

Janice Aski headshot“This is the message that's being lost on the world,” Aski said. “It's overcoming that vulnerability and learning how to interact. Then, even when you're operating in your own language, you have the confidence to figure out another way to say something, figure out another way to understand that person's perspective.”

McGraw Hill is looking to build a larger initiative around Aski’s videos with Lahiri, asking students to upload their own videos  about their experience learning a new language to create a larger, more interactive campaign for all languages.

Meanwhile, Aski is already incorporating these videos in the intercultural competence modules in her courses to help contextualize world language study. These courses include Italian 1101-1103 and a variety of classes that satisfy the major and minor.

“Our work on intercultural competence is, yes, based on understanding Italians, but the larger message is about the ‘other,’” Aski said. “We use the Italian context to trigger the conversation, but the conversation is really much larger.”

For Aski, learning another language is really about developing the ability to understand diversity in whatever form it takes. She hopes students learn how to decenter from their own culture and seek to understand someone else’s perspective, even if – or especially if – they do not agree with it.

She said so many people think they should take a language based on what they think is most useful professionally, like Spanish or German. But, recognizing the deeper knowledge studying a world language generates, she said all languages are valuable.

“If you look at the larger picture of what you're gaining in this experience, learning any language will help you move forward in your career,” Aski said.

The final lesson: Take the language you love.