Exploring Cultural Connections

Foreign languages bring students closer to their heritage and the world

Photo: Mike Peters

Professor Chungie Zhang (left) and Professor Mazooz T. Sehwail

At a time when diverse local communities, a global economy, and the Internet are breaking down traditional geographical boundaries, “you need a second language,” according to Modern Languages and Literatures Chair Lois Oppenheim.

Chungie Zhang, assistant professor of Chinese, says, “There is a deep connection between language and culture. It’s important to show students the great variety and diversity of cultural connections, for instance, between China and the rest of the world.”

Chinese and Arabic are among the “hot” languages at Montclair State this year. Arabic Program Coordinator Mazooz T. Sehwail says, “After 9/11, more and more students became interested in Arabic.” To satisfy this interest, the University offers minors in both Arabic Languages and Arabic Studies. As increased student interest fuels departmental growth, Oppenheim says that the department intends to create a new Chinese minor and an Arabic major in the near future.

“I decided that Arabic would be a useful and interesting language to study since it is so widely spoken,” says linguistics and teacher education major Jonathan Torres. With “Arabic speakers and Arab communities here in New Jersey, learning Arabic offered the opportunity to better appreciate these individuals.”

For many Montclair State students, the decision to study a particular language and culture is an intensely personal one. “Learning my native tongue, Mandarin, will help me converse with my grandmother who is visiting from China,” says freshman Tiffany Sam.

Senior French translation major Rafael E. Auz wants to be a United Nations translator. He studies both Arabic and Chinese because they are two of the UN’s six official languages.

“I value everything I’ve learned about other cultures during the course of my studies,” Auz says. “I hope I can make the people I interpret for feel at home.”

Recent graduate Mark Joseph Brackenbury, a justice studies major, also took Arabic to prepare for a career. “I would love to go into a federal agency and be some type of officer, whether FBI, DEA, or Border Patrol Agent.”

Sehwail, a native of Ramallah, Palestine, notes that some students are drawn to the Arabic program for religious reasons. Others are “heritage students who want to explore family connections.”

“Some of them even take Arabic for romantic reasons—because their boyfriend or girlfriend is an Arab. Or because they are interested in marrying an Arab and want to be able to speak to their in-laws,” Sehwail adds.

Today Montclair, Tomorrow the World

Jonathan Torres plans to study in Amman, Jordan, in an intensive eight-week program led by Sehwail this summer. “Traveling to an Arab country will allow me to experience Arabic in a genuinely immersive setting,” Torres explains.

Zhang, who was raised in Beijing, says students often “want to go to Taiwan or Mainland China to study further—to live and learn there.” Because the global economy and sweeping political changes have made China easily accessible, students like sophomore Ihoong Chung, who “chose to study Chinese because of my family and friends,” is hoping to “study abroad in China or Taiwan in the summer.”

What’s next on the horizon for Montclair students? Oppenheim is excited about a new online program that will let students from around the world study Hebrew at Montclair State. Montclair State students can also study Hebrew language and culture in Tel Aviv, Israel, through a new partnership with Kibbutzim College. Beginning- and intermediate-level courses in Japanese are popular with students and the department is planning to reinstate a German major.

Sehwail, who loves nothing better than introducing students from different ethnic backgrounds and interests to a new language and culture, points out one final advantage of the program—pure enjoyment. “Learning a new language is fun! My class is a fun time rather than just a teaching time. I encourage everyone to join us.”

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Conrad J. Schmitt ’58: A Career in Foreign Languages

Conrad J. Schmitt ’58 never takes for granted the education he received at Montclair State. “It had a lasting effect on me personally and professionally,” says the retired foreign language educator. Knowing Montclair State can have a similar impact on future students, Schmitt recently made a generous bequest to the University. “Montclair State gave me the tools I needed to be successful in my career,” he explains. “I wanted to give something back to help worthy students studying foreign languages.”

Schmitt fondly remembers his days at Montclair State Teachers College, where he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, French, and English. A prolific author, Schmitt has penned nearly 250 textbooks in Spanish and French, and enjoyed a fulfilling teaching career before joining McGraw-Hill Book Company as an editor-in-chief of Foreign Languages, English as a Second Language, and Bilingual Education. He credits his undergraduate education in helping him navigate the responsibilities of researching, editing, production, marketing, and sales in domestic and international markets.

“Montclair State provided me with a broad range of educational experiences that enriched my life and helped me to pursue a most successful career,” he said. So when the idea emerged of bequeathing part of his estate to an organization that had personal, meaningful impact, he said it didn’t take long to choose Montclair State.

Schmitt’s bequest will support scholarships and activities in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Linguistics, and Spanish and Italian. This spring, Finley Hall will be rededicated as Conrad J. Schmitt Hall in honor of Schmitt.