When I started working at the Colby College Museum of Art, the art museum was going through a transition of identifying their audiences and creating more diverse, inclusive and innovative programs that welcomed new audiences. You’re Speaking My Language was one of the programs developed for spring 2017, with the goal of providing opportunities for speakers of other languages to engage with our collection and with each other. As a museum, we wanted to create a space for and welcome the ways that languages can bring different cultural associations and experiences. These conversations can influence how we perceive a thought or an image and allow visitors to explore different perspectives and interpretations of an artwork.
You’re Speaking My Language was inspired by an experience abroad and an interaction with language across different cultures. In the small town of Dijon, France, there is a café on 27 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Caf&Co, in which on select evenings a language hour with coffee is held. I was really impressed by the friendliness of the two servers: they both spoke German, and when their friends came by they spoke Spanish and Italian. I thought it was a wonderful way of socializing and connecting with one another. On top of the coffee, they also provided board games and other craft activities in the café for customers to play. It was a very intimate and comfortable setting to practice a language and also organize amongst community members.
After the first few language hours at Colby, the word got out about the You’re Speaking My Language program, and the Museum began to develop and strengthen relations with our language departments and work closely with community partners. Each session is devoted to a specific language and includes food inspired by the culture associated with that language, as well as activities in collaboration with language assistants, professors, community members, and Museum staff.
Because there are multiple collaborators on the language hour, each hour is unique; one day you might be exploring Alex Katz paintings, or getting to know the life and work of Mary Cassatt in a salon setting, or you might focus on vocabulary related to a theme from a temporary exhibition. The program offers an opportunity for participants to share cultural experiences in different languages while using art as a catalyst for these conversations.
The program has been a great success in its first semesters, and we are looking forward to continuing the program this Fall 2018. We asked a few of our collaborators to share their reflections and thoughts below about the program and their experiences using different languages in the Museum.
We hope you can join us for our upcoming language hours:
Chinese: September 27th at 7pm
Spanish: October 11th at 6pm, November 8th at 6pm
Italian: October 11th at 7pm
French: November 8th at 7pm
If you are interested in collaborating or hosting a language hour in Spring 2019, please contact Miriam Valle-Mancilla, Linde Family Foundation Coordinator of Academic Access, at firstname.lastname@example.org
“The You’re Speaking My Language program in the Museum has been the highlight of my experience as a Spanish student so far. I am a very self-conscious Spanish speaker and this program allowed me to practice my skills in a friendly, nongraded environment. The Spanish professors made me feel extremely comfortable and welcomed, and I gained confidence speaking as the program continued. I hadn’t yet gotten a chance to check out the Walter Iooss exhibit, so this was a great opportunity. I genuinely enjoyed the activities that were planned and enjoyed sharing lots of laughs with the small group as we discussed our various experiences with the sports Iooss had photographed. I can’t wait for the next time the Spanish Department hosts this event, and will be sure to bring a friend.” –Anna Gildea ’20
“I am really happy with the way the event [April 5, Italian Language Hour] turned out, and I think my favorite part was the relaxed and playful atmosphere created by the beautiful surroundings, the good food, and the novelty of being outside the classroom practicing our language skills. Almost all the students in attendance were from our IT126 class, which means that they are beginners with just one semester of Italian under their belts. Most of them are also freshmen, which means that, in all likelihood, their exposure to the Museum and its treasures has been quite minimal.
It was indeed great seeing the students use their Italian outside the classroom, describe what they saw when looking at the works of art on exhibition, and express how they felt about them. Our second (third, fourth, etc.) languages afford us liberties that are usually impossible to experience in our mother tongues; Elio Pagliarani, one of the greatest Italian poets of the second half of the twentieth century, wrote in one of his poems: ‘Chi sa due lingue vive due vite,’ that is, ‘Those who know two languages lead two lives.’ I think that last night our students might have had the first glimpse of this exhilarating freedom, this second life.” –Gianluca Rizzo, Paul D. and Marilyn Paganucci Assistant Professor of Italian Language and Literature at Colby College
“It was a pleasure to see the students being curious and enthusiastic in expressing their feelings in front of works of art and practicing their language skills. Can curiosity be cultivated? I believe that knowing other languages allows us to express our personalities: we become able to share concepts and ideas on and with other nations and cultures. In a way, languages shape your thoughts, exactly like art. I think that practicing a language through art and creativity, as we did on Thursday, is a powerful and efficient way of cultivating not only language skills and art sensibility, but also creativity.” –Federica Parodi, Italian Language Assistant in the Department of French and Italian at Colby College
“This program enriches our students’ experience of foreign languages as they can use their linguistic skills outside the classroom in a setting that fosters creative and critical thinking. Sometimes foreign language learners struggle to find opportunities to speak French, Spanish etc. . . . with their peers and with native speakers. You’re Speaking My Language offers them a space where they can interact more meaningfully and express themselves around works of art that become the centerpiece for their conversations in the target language. This helps language speakers gain confidence while developing their communicative skills. Students are thus encouraged to work outside their comfort zone in museum galleries where they approach art in a unique way. Students don’t need to be experts in art to talk about artworks. On the contrary, they can use what they have studied in class (vocabulary, cultural references, grammatical structures, theories, etc.) to make sense of the piece in front of them. The Museum is an extension of the classroom where reading, speaking, writing and listening all happen at once. This is what language learners do: they observe what is around them and create meaning in the target language. They use the same approach when interacting in the Museum.
What I like about the program is the fact that it fosters critical and creative thinking; it enhances the students communicative skills in the target language; it makes them take an intellectual risk in a space that they don’t necessarily know well. In my opinion, what works well is the small group format. If students are put in larger groups to work on a specific activity in the galleries, some will hide behind their peers and won’t feel comfortable speaking. However, when they work in small groups, they can have a voice and share their thoughts and analysis with their peers. This is key to language learning.” –Audrey Brunetaux, Associate Professor of French Studies at Colby College and Interim Director of the Center for the Arts and Humanities
“The students enjoy practicing in an active way and being outside of the classroom, and I like seeing them engage more spontaneously! I think having language programs in the Museum is a good idea, and I also like that it’s bringing all kinds of students there. It allows them to see the Museum as a true resource. They seem way less anxious about actually speaking. I had a questionnaire in my class to evaluate how anxious they felt about language classes and the answers were rather compelling. I feel like the Museum is a good space for them to feel safer and talk with less pressure: a lot of activities focus on teamwork. I loved seeing the students be excited about the chasse au trésor; I really felt like they were looking at the paintings with new eyes.” –Juliette Bouanani, French Language Assistant in the Department of French and Italian at Colby College