May 27, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 17

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    Nadine Di Vito, Senior Lecturer, Director of the Romance Language Program and French Coordinator in Romance Languages & Literatures

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Nadine Di Vito

    Nadine Di Vito said, “I don’t think you can have one teaching methodology, at least for foreign language teaching. There are so many factors: the grammar, lexicon, pronunciation, and then there are the behavioral issues: how do you put it all together?”

    Di Vito, Senior Lecturer, Director of the Romance Language Program and French Coordinator in Romance Languages & Literatures, continued: “Underlying it all is a set of attitudes and values. My background is in sociolinguistics, so I see simple acts like inviting or greeting as ways our images of other people and cultures get built. It’s crucial for our students to gain a sense of how they communicate with other people and how they present themselves through language and behavior. “It’s something you can teach people to become aware of and question. I’ve given up the idea of teaching ‘the Language’ as a package of things you can get from a grammar book.” Di Vito believes true communication with others involves a matching of intentions and interpretations of the interlocutors. “Acquiring new norms of communication is a difficult, but a real and rewarding possibility,” she said.

    “It’s the idea that you have to know how to question what you say and why you’re saying it in the context you do, and be equally able to question how you’re interpreting others—what they say, how they look, what they’re doing.

    “Everyone wants to be open to learning another culture, but unless you have some guidance as to what that means, it’s hard to do. The acquisition of words and forms isn’t the hardest part—our students are so bright they can almost do it without us. It’s examining how and why those words and forms are used in different contexts that leads to new possibilities for understanding people. I think of teaching foreign languages as exploring who you are and understanding humans, how they act and communicate. Students come to class with different personalities, cultural experiences, native languages, so you need different methodologies to provoke a critical examination of both new language norms and one’s native norms of communicating.”

    Di Vito received a Maîtrise and a DEA in Sciences de l’Education from the Université de Bordeaux II in 1984 and 1985 respectively, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987. At Pennsylvania, she studied with a group considered the most important sociolinguists of the 20th century: Dell Hymes, William Labov, Irving Goffman and Gillian Sankoff.

    “One class had Irving, Gillian and Bill just sitting up there and arguing with one another about the meaning of language and social interaction. I just stumbled into it; it was only later on that I realized how formative an experience it was.”

    Di Vito has published Patterns Across Spoken and Written French: Empirical Research on the Interaction Among Forms, Functions, and Genres, which challenges prevalent notions about the relationship between spoken and written French and the ways French is evolving.

    She also has studied norms for invitations, a crucial realm for students staying with French families. “There’s a notion that Americans are vague; when we say ‘we’ll have to do lunch sometime soon’ or ‘we’ve got to go to this show on Friday at eight,’ people not socialized in America might think this means something definitely will happen. These are called ‘ostensible invitations,’ but if you don’t talk to this person until the time of the party, we assume it might not happen. A French person would think it was confirmed if a time and date were set.”

    The result can reinforce cultural stereotypes or lead to a negative evaluation: “so-and-so stood me up,” “the American was dishonest and insincere,” Di Vito explained. “American English is considered to be direct: we think we ‘put our cards on the table,’ so we’re surprised to learn how many ways we can be indirect.

    “I routinely have to deal with these issues when French teachers come here or our students go abroad. Knowing the cultural rules is in many ways even more important than the linguistic rules; if you don’t know the right behavior and how it is used to show who you are, then actual social integration and contact is pretty limited.

    “It’s a never-ending route of discovery for me. There’s so much that we don’t know about how we communicate with people who are around us all the time, and then to think you can communicate with people from a totally different group, in a different language! People ask, ‘Don’t you ever get sick of teaching first year?’ and I think, my God, the more I teach, the more challenging it becomes.”