Pardon My French: Speaking Through The Language And Culture Department

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It’s 3:30pm on a Tuesday. Between the clatter of forks and spoons, a cheerful voice rings through Marletto’s: Bonjour! It’s the usual set-up for Mikaël Toulza, French teaching assistant in the Department of International Languages and Cultures. Toulza, a native of Toulouse, France, is one of four teaching assistants working side-by-side with the department to bring a bit of je ne sais quoi to Webster.

Toulza hosts La Table Française, a program that encourages students to practice their French in a more relaxed environment. An actor in France for ten years, Toulza brings his passion for entertaining to the classroom.

“That’s what I do when I teach,” Toulza said. “I act, I jump — I need everyone awake. I try to bring my French touch to each class.”

Toulza isn’t the only star in the show. Since the creation of Le Centre Francophone in 2012, Webster has become the heart of St. Louis’ Francophile community. With goals of bringing a taste of France to Webster, the language immersion program organizes events to engage these French enthusiasts in the culture. The program even recruits one student from select schools around the globe for a yearlong exchange program.

Leading the way in this endeavor is Professor Lionel Cuillé. After being commissioned the Jane and Bruce Robert Chair in French and Francophone Studies and Director of Le Centre Francophone, Cuillé dedicated himself to an extensive mission: to create a Francophile community at Webster.

“I want to promote not just French culture, but Francophile cultures to create global citizens,” Cuillé said. “But you cannot be a global citizen if you just speak English.”

Cuillé has created a world of opportunities for French enthusiasts simply by teaching his passions. Born in Toulon, France, a small town located between Marseille and Nice, Cuillé’s first love was literature. Falling headfirst for 19th century poet Frances Ponge, Cuillé immersed himself grammar, film and even Latin. While specializing in 19th and 20th in century poetry, Cuillé refers to himself as a generalist, embracing all forms of media in the classroom. Most French courses require the use of multimedia such as film, photography and art to examine the language in a cultural context. This method has given French professors the freedom to create courses specific to their students’ needs. After seeing an increased interest in environmental sustainability, Cuillé created an advanced seminar called French Ecology in the fall of 2013 to examine France’s environmental politics and connect the material to current topics in the classroom. For Cuillé, learning a language is all about adaptability.

“You must learn another culture through language in order to have a better point of view on your own culture,” Cuillé said. “What is valued most is a sense of openness to adapt to new situations.”

Culture can come in many forms and languages. The department offers courses in ten languages, including Spanish, Italian and Arabic. Students can take their language skills to the next level with semester-long study abroad or exchange student programs in France and Argentina. Yet for Spanish students, living like a local doesn’t require a passport, just a quick stroll to Webster Hall.

Renowned theater company Teatro Buendía brought a bit of Cuba to Webster earlier this spring. Known for adapting classical plays to reflect upon Cuban society, playwright Raquel Carrio and director Flora Lauten immersed students in Spanish literature through a five-week series of workshops and plays.

The powerhouse theater duo also taught a four-week course open to all majors. Students watched, read and dissected adaptations of plays focusing on different cultures. Spanish major Taylor Caldwell explains that Teatro Buendía was simply an extension of the classroom, but with a little added flavor. “There is only so much you can experience in a standard language course,” Caldwell said. “To have someone teach a course that’s so unique is very useful.”

According to Caldwell, the department acts as a melting pot for students of all backgrounds. Classes are composed of both Spanish major and minor students, which he admits is part of their charm. The intimate and diverse classes, with most including less than 12 students, provide the perfect atmosphere for one-on-one conversations.

Yet Caldwell’s passion for language surpasses Spanish. Like many foreign language students, he dabbles in several languages, taking courses in Italian and socializing at the Japanese Language Table.

Whether it’s French, Russian, Spanish or Thai, Caldwell encourages students to experience cultures through language. Learning any language, he explains, is about practicality and passion.

“It gives you a better understanding of other people, of how they live,” Caldwell said. “It’s something you can feel really good about.”

Story by Romana Mrzljak

Photos by Gaby Deimeke

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