WorldView: A Language Blog

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History through Language

By Melanie Krob, Ph.D. | Published: January 13, 2020

I’ll never forget arriving in the train station in Paris, jet-lagged but excited to begin my junior year abroad in France and to develop some fluency in French. I had successfully navigated the labyrinth of Charles de Gaulle airport and found a taxi to the Gare de Montparnasse. My destination was the Loire Valley city of Nantes. The only obstacle remaining was to purchase a TGV ticket. Armed with a few phrases from my college French textbook, I realized that my language preparation was completely inadequate. Stepping on the train, I entered a hazy train car. I had inadvertently purchased a ticket for the smoking section! 

Throughout those first weeks in Nantes, my rudimentary French was my personal barrier. I wanted to get to know the people, but my skills were not up to the task. Over the course of the year, my French-language skills improved substantially. Gradually, I was able to engage in more meaningful discussions with French speakers. My experience in France awoke a language bug that I have never lost. It also had an unexpected side effect. It showed me that language opened a window to the history of a country and a culture. My deepening understanding of the language led me further into the culture, which made me hungry to master French even more. 

I didn’t have much interest in history as a child. Although I grew up in a suburb just minutes from New Orleans, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the United States, I did not appreciate its history at the time. Even at school, history class for me was just endless worksheets. My immersion year in France would help me realize that history was much more than names, dates and timelines of events. It was about people. It was about their stories, both past and present.

As my French improved and my confidence in the language grew, I learned that people wanted to share their stories and those of their families. The language created a new experience. French friends took me to historic sites, narrated their city’s history, and shared their perspective on the history of the places we visited. I met French resistance fighters who shared their wartime experiences and other people who were eager to share theirs. Suddenly, I was seeing world history through their eyes, and it was the intimacy of sharing their language that provided the key.  

That year was a transformative one for me. I returned from France with a drive to learn other languages. I also returned with the curiosity to examine different perspectives of European history.  I wanted to better understand the French perspective, the German perspective, the Italian perspective, and the perspective of any other group I could access. I wanted to talk to people, read their memoirs, their poems, their thoughts. I wanted to learn about historical figures and events from the original documents, in the original language. In short, I wanted see history through the eyes of the people who lived it. 

The author and her Global Studies student with Panamanian flag
Dr. Krob and one of her global studies students,
their studies overseen by the Panamanian flag. 

Today, I am a high-school history teacher, but my passion remains languages. Over the past 16 years, I have developed history curricula on Europe, China, Japan and Latin America that have been published in educational journals and shared at national conferences and workshops. As I explored each region’s history, I also explored the language. At my school, I have designed a program called “Global Studies,” which is our series of history capstone courses. Each senior must choose a region of the world to study for a full year. Students who have achieved a high level of proficiency in French or Spanish, which is roughly 25% of our senior class, have the option of taking the history course in the target language. As part of this program, I co-teach the Latin American Global Studies course in Spanish with a Panamanian colleague from the Spanish department. This course explores Latin American history and current events from the perspective of the people who live in Latin America.  

In order to be prepared for a future in our increasingly interconnected world, our students need to understand the people and the cultures that share it.  What better way than to learn another language and then see the world and historical events through that lens.

About the Author

Melanie G. Krob, Ph.D. teaches history at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, LA, and is the creator and director of Newman’s nationally recognized Global Studies Program. She earned her B.A. in French at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, and Ph.D. in European Cultural History at Tulane University. In 2016, the Newman Global Studies Program established a partnership with Concordia Language Villages.  

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