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New bilingual/bicultural center sponsors series of talks by authors

"Living in Two Languages," a speaker series beginning on February 17, will inaugurate the new Center for Bilingual and Bicultural Studies (CBBS) at MIT and also illuminate and deepen the concepts of bilingualism and biculturalism for members of the MIT community.

"The center represents a perfect marriage between independent but overlapping fields of inquiry," said Professor Suzanne Flynn, professor of linguistics and second language acquisition.

Isabelle de Courtivron, professor of French studies and CBBS director, described the role of the speakers in relation to the new Center's mission.

"All of these speakers are distinguished international authors who write in a language other than their mother tongue, and they all explore the complex issues of linguistic and cultural identity in their fiction, poetry, essays and autobiographies. This is particularly relevant at MIT where a very large number of students did not speak English as their first language," she said.

Speaking and writing in a language other than the one spoken at home also reflects a much broader situation, Professor De Courtivron said.

"In the US, 'bilingualism' has been restricted to a politicized issue surrounding Spanish and bilingual education, and it is important not to let this overshadow a global phenomenon," she said. "In addition, bilingualism is the subject of new research in brain and cognitive science and linguistics, as well as history, literature and anthropology."

The general focus of CBBS is described in a written statement, available from Professor De Courtivron. It begins with some observations about the way language is used, or not used, for political reasons.

"The legacies of colonialism, the consequences of immigration and emigration, the politics of language and culture have created numerous situations in which language plays a central role," the statement says.

"Among the numerous global examples are the situations of Creole speakers in the Caribbean, of French and English citizens in Quebec, of minority languages such as Basque or Catalan in European countries, or the more recent developments such as mandatory Arabization in Algeria or Hong Kong's new emphasis on privileging Mandarin Chinese in schools.

"Bilingual/bicultural studies provide a model which is transnational, multigenerational, and helps us move away from issues of American identity politics which have adversely affected Ethnic Studies," the statement says.

The diverse activities of the CBBS (classes, UROPS, digital archives, research projects, lectures and conferences) will have a significant impact both within and outside of MIT, according to the statement.

"Within MIT, the Center will offer a significant model of the triad [of] 'research, education and community' called for by the Task Force [on Student Life and Learning]. Students will study, take classes in, do research on, and become personally involved with a broad set of issues which affect, intellectually and personally, a large number of our undergraduate population (not to mention our faculty).

"No other institution outside of MIT is currently doing this. Thus MIT could be a pioneer in an area which is of increasing interest and concern to large segments of the population both nationally and internationally," the statement concluded.

CBBS was begun as an initiative of the foreign languages and literatures section. It is headquartered on the sixth floor of Building 16, sharing space with the HyperStudio. Among the Hyper-Studio's activities is developing projects with multimedia applications to the acquisition of a second language and culture, which will be included under the umbrella of the CBBS.

The "Living in Two Languages" series runs from February 17 through April 29. The scheduled speakers, times and locations are as follows.

February 17: Distinguished Japanese/German writer Yoko Tawada, 7:30pm, Killian Hall. February 24: Eva Hoffman, the Polish author of Lost in Translation, 4:30pm, Rm 14E-310. March 11: bilingual Irish/English poet Nuala Ni Dohmnaill, 1pm, Rm 14N-313. April 7: Esmeralda Santiago, author of When I was Puerto Rican, 7:30pm, Killian Hall. April 29: Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, author of Among the White Moon Faces, 7:30pm, Wong Auditorium (Building E51).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 10, 1999.

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