Bruce Maylath ’80 is a man in love with language; and it’s an affair he’ll talk about openly.
A professor of English at North Dakota State University in Fargo and recognized expert in technical communication education, Maylath was the first K student to study abroad in Norway, helping pave a way for future students, including his brother Glen ’83, to study in Scandinavia. At the time, there were no study abroad centers there, he says.
“I was fortunate to be at K when the designers of K-Plan were still at the college,” he says. “Some of them experienced World War II. That was one of the reasons the program was created. They figured if young people were in other nations and they were learning from each other, we could help stave off another world war.”
Maylath is quick to point out that the root word of communicate is “commune”—to share intimacy, manifest community, enable the interchange of ideas and feelings.
“When we don’t communicate, we make assumptions and give in to myths and stereotypes. We can’t deal effectively or empathetically with each other unless we appreciate the diversity of communication. If we don’t, fear of the other can rise.”
With help from the College’s study abroad endowment, Maylath made his way in Norway, learning the language, making connections and seeing how powerful intentional cultural exchange can be.
Today, with the continued rise of social media and technology, the world is becoming smaller virtually, and so is the diversity of languages used to communicate. But where one may see the benefits of the use of a handful of languages worldwide, such as Chinese, English or Spanish, Maylath sees danger on the horizon.
To illustrate his concern, he points to a critical moment in how language is used in the United States. It was 1917, and with American doughboys fighting the Germans in the trenches of Western Europe, nationalism was high. Germans and German culture generally— including speaking the language—were seen as disloyal, un-American. German language was on its way out.
In Minnesota, for instance, one-third of schools taught their students primarily in German before World War I, and hearing it being spoken on streets and in restaurants was commonplace. That more open language policy in schools there was cancelled soon after the war began.
“It was normal to hear German being spoken alongside English,” Maylath says. “We are still living with the decision to do away with German, in many ways.”
The American education system does not stress the learning of foreign languages nearly as much as those of other nations do, he says. And it’s to our own detriment.
“Why do we wait so late to teach our kids other languages? The truth is it’s a policy meant to prevent learning other ways of communicating,” he says. “It’s the fear of the other. Language is one of the easiest things to denigrate, and big, powerful nations have never had to declare an official language, because of that power.
“English is eliminating languages across the world left and right. We are especially good at wiping out languages here in North America.”
Decades after his experience in Norway and with years of academic expertise under his belt, Maylath is leading some very meaningful work.
He is the co-founder and coordinator of the Trans-Atlantic and Pacific Project, a network linking writing, usability testing and translation classes at 28 universities in 15 countries. The project aims to break away from the growing trend of “monolingualism” and grow appreciation for the incredible diversity of language across the globe.
Students in the program are paired with others in different nations, using Skype or other means to communicate and grow appreciation for how the other’s language is used in day-to-day life in a sort of enhanced translation learning.
“We had one of our Belgian students ask an American participant what a wall outlet was, for example,” Maylath says. “It’s just a completely foreign phrase to them. Another student found out her partner was blind and they both had to develop a plan going forward. In the end, our students don’t just learn more vocabulary, but actually how the language is used. It’s cultural appreciation.”
It’s also a program that Maylath says has tones of the K-Plan ringing through it.
“Learning by doing. Experiential learning. That was a big part of the K-Plan and K’s culture,” he says. “How can students learn by experience? That’s what we should be asking. When they do, they become excited about their experience. It’s a highly energized and realistic way to learn, and in our program, helps them share their humanity.”
And like most authentic learning, the lessons and connections made stick with students.
“Some of our students have become close friends,” he says. “The experiences they have reverberate in ways you can’t plan for. But in a way it makes sense. They are doing what humans yearn to do—they’re connecting. That’s the power of language.”