Faculty & Staff Resources
Spotlight on Modern Languages Faculty
Our faculty have a diverse and exciting expertise that cross languages and cultures. On a regular basis, we like to shine a "spotlight" on faculty members. Below find Abla Hasan, Elizabeth Enkin, Nora Martin Peterson, and Isabel Velázquez.
A recent addition to the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Dr. Abla Hasan received her PhD in Philosophy of Language from UNL in the spring of 2013 and was shortly after hired as a Professor of Practice of Arabic Language and Culture. Dr. Hasan brings a diverse background of study in topics ranging from feminism and religious studies to second language acquisition theories. This diversity in teaching and research interests equips Hasan with the necessary skills to teach a language which many students come into with some apprehension.
Hasan understands the trepidation she sees in many of her new students. “Arabic,” she says “is misunderstood to be a ‘difficult language to learn.’” However, Hasan is quick to point out that “Arabic is different, not difficult.” For Dr. Hasan, the best way to introduce the Arabic language to new learners is to focus on culture. In her 100-level courses, each week has a different theme, once a week a class is devoted to the discussion of cultural issues related to the week’s theme. “It makes learning more interesting,” says Hasan, “and takes the focus off abstract grammar.” During these cultural lessons Hasan incorporates games and guest speakers to break up the often intensive learning of Arabic grammar which can be daunting to new learners. These games, which incorporate newly acquired vocabulary and apply them to culturally significant situations, aids adult students with acquisition by applying what has been taught in a low-pressure situation.
Born and raised in the Middle East and a native Arabic speaker who learned English as an adult, Dr. Hasan empathizes with her students who are learning an entirely new language later in life. This ability to commiserate along with her background in the Philosophy of Language allows Hasan to apply recent theories in language acquisition to aid her students in her studies. Dr. Hasan has students take tests to discover their learning styles and then incorporates the results of these tests into the way she teaches her courses; a practice that Dr. Hasan says helps her “sense a way with her students.” Hasan focuses on learning each student’s name as quickly as possible and treating them as persons not numbers.
As a teacher of a Less Commonly Taught Language, Hasan faces question about the validity of Arabic study and the application of Arabic acquisition. She responds that, “Arabic is now a Critical Language in the United States. The Arabic Spring brought about change in 22 countries and while the Arabic Spring brought about what we see as chaos, chaos brings a new world.” Hasan sees this event not just through the lens of an Arabic educator but also with the knowledge that comes with her upbringing in the Middle East. Because of this insight Hasan notes that the “changed relationship between the Middle East and the Western World” will open up many opportunities in many different fields. Hasan believes that “opportunity comes to those prepared for it,” and by learning Arabic and familiarizing themselves with cultural practices of the Arabic speaking world, her students are preparing themselves for just such an opportunity.
Dr. Liz Enkin, Assistant Professor of Spanish, is another new face in Modern Languages & Literatures. Enkin’s expertise: psycholinguistics. More specifically, Enkin’s passion rests in studying how the human mind learns a second language and creating teaching tools and techniques catering to these innate processes.
Enkin’s experience with second-language acquisition began at an early age. Her parents immigrated to the United States from St. Petersburg. While Enkin was born in Boston, she was raised speaking nothing but Russian by her grandparents. She set foot in preschool at the age of 5 without knowing a word of English.
The strange thing? Enkin doesn’t remember "learning" English.
"I have vague memories of not understanding what was being said to me," she said, "and suddenly understanding in kindergarten." This effortless transition fascinates Enkin to this day.
And it gets more interesting: Enkin is also fluent in Spanish. She can easily switch between Russian, Spanish and English – with a catch. In Spanish, she can pick out a word and translate it – such as a table, la mesa. Not so for Russian.
"When I think in Russian," she said, "it has to be in context. I would have to think ‘I put something on the table’ to remember the word."
These questions drew Enkin to psycholinguistics - in search of answers.
"It will definitely keep me busy," she said. "It’s a never-ending question… we can only theorize what’s going on in your brain."
And now, Enkin is attempting to bring these theories to the classroom.
Her current project is to create a classroom language-learning computer application. This app, once created, is called the Story Maze.
The story maze looks something like this: Two boxes appear on either side of the screen. A word is in one of the boxes. You press the left or right arrow key, based on where the word is.
Then two new boxes appear, each filled with a new word. You press on the right or left arrow key, based on which one feels like it grammatically follows the previous word. The process repeats until you reach the end of the sentence.
The user, by pressing left and right arrow keys, reads a full, linear sentence. Thus, the application’s name: the story maze.
And by creating this prototype into a full-fledged program, Enkin said, students will implicitly learn how to construct Spanish sentences.
"Implicit knowledge is where native language comes from," Enkin said. "We rely on the explicit domain, grammar and vocabulary, in our classrooms. We need it, but it’s being overused."
By providing students with the story maze, Enkin hopes to teach students how a language "feels" – which is the hardest part of all to teach. In addition, students’ work is simple to assess: the program automatically spits out completion speed times and errors once students complete a given task.
Enkin plans to continue bringing research and theories into the classroom in new and creative ways. "It’s one thing to figure out how a group learns a language," Enkin said. "But it’s another to figure out the individual. And that is where the pedagogical side comes in."
Enkin and her fiancé, Eric Kirschling, live together with their two cats, Chase and Scout. Her fiancé is currently pursuing a degree in ‘Nutritional Balancing,’ a new and upcoming health science. Outside of their studies and teaching, both frequently study the latest breakthroughs in health and wellness research.
Dr. Nora Peterson, with five months under her belt, is one of the newest faculty members in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. Her passion, however, has not gone unnoticed. Her love of language, literature and teaching has already resulted in a new course in comparative literature. The course, FREN 398, is available to all UNL students regardless of their course of study.
Peterson will lead students' exploration of body language in French literature, drawing connections between it and developments in politics, fashion, religion and even medicine.
"The body is implicitly or explicitly built into almost every discipline," Peterson said. "[It] is a contentious site full of tensions, conflicts and taboos."
The body is the center of large decisions and discussions across all disciplines; politics, religion, medicine and social studies all historically center around the body, Peterson said. This consciousness of the body continues today, with developments in LGBT rights and women's reproductive rights during the past decade taking multiple disciplines by storm.
"The body is a canvas that history has used over and over again," Peterson said.
Her own research focuses on small slips of the flesh in Early Modern French and German Literature. These involuntary confessions of the flesh, which might include blushing, trembling or fainting, intersect with and interrupt early modern discourses of the "self."
Peterson's fascination of comparative literature stems from a life of dual citizenship and living in a bilingual home. Born in Pennsylvania, she grew up in Georgia, Iowa and Germany, earning German citizenship through her father's heritage. Peterson studied French during high school, where she discovered her love of comparative literature.
She acquired her bachelor's in comparative literature from Carleton College, Minn. and her master's and Ph.D. from Brown University, R.I.
Peterson hopes to bring her students to love other languages by teaching French and comparative literature, and to help them find connections between the humanities.
"They [the disciplines] are the pieces of a puzzle that make up the world as we know it today," Peterson said. No single discipline shaped our policies and our society; it is an open conversation that has been taking place for centuries.
By exposing parts of this conversation, she said, Peterson hopes to give her students tools to shape the dialogue happening around them. This, Peterson added, will help students understand themselves as they discover the forces shaping the world they live in.
Peterson also hopes to revitalize the humanities by linking them back together again.
"If the humanities want to survive today, we need to open up the conversation," Peterson said. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and treating (and teaching) humanities as such will cause it to become irrelevant.
Aside from her passion for teaching and research, Peterson is an avid biker and runner. She has gone biking in the Azores with her husband and is working toward her goal of running a marathon in every state. She also shares her home with two English Springer Spaniels, Schoko and Picasso.
When Dr. Isabel Velázquez came to the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures in 2008, she brought with her a fascination in bilingualism. Beginning this semester, she is offering the same interest to UNL students.
The Heritage Speakers course is designed for undergraduate students who grew up with Spanish being spoken in the household, but with the need for a better foundation in reading and writing the language. Students interested in taking this course may have several different reasons stemming from wanting to reclaim something they see as a part of their heritage and hopes of reconnecting with family, to taking advantage of job opportunities for bilingual speakers.
"There are instrumental, emotional and even religious reasons," said Velázquez.
For native speakers of Spanish, the regularly offered basic language courses may be too easy or boring, so this is a better fit for those students. And while the course does have students it can cater to, Velázquez is working on spreading the word about heritage speakers - a subject she feels strongly about.
Velázquez worked as a journalist for several years after receiving her Bachelor's Degree in Communication and Journalism from Mexico City. She decided to return to school, obtaining her Master's Degree in Spanish from New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. It was here, as a Teaching Assistant, that she came into contact with pedagogical heritage speakers and found her interest.
"I was fascinated by their situation as bilinguals - navigating both language and identities," she said. "This is what fascinates me; that's what keeps me awake."
Because of teacher influences and on the job learning experiences, Velázquez decided to pursue her Ph.D. in Hispanic Linguistics with a certificate in Second Language Acquisition.
Velázquez not only explores this subject in the classroom, but also in her research.
Velázquez's research life expands on the elements of the heritage speaker course - finding out what are features of families to pass on language in the home. Velázquez is working with immigrant families to explore the issues of why some families lose the language, as well as publishing research on the role of the mother as the main language planner in the home.
A variety of factors play a large part in the transmission of language in the family. The first, being the quality and amount of exposure to Spanish in the home. The different type of input (formal and informal speaking) and the opportunity for use in the second generation is also important. The third factor is relevance.
"Who determines what is relevant in your life is you - not your parents," said Velázquez.
Keeping heritage language in the home is a process that starts in childhood, but may not extend far beyond that if the next generation doesn't see the use. Velázquez is hoping through courses being offered and research, she can understand more about this cycle.
Velázquez sees an opportunity here to offer an understanding about how language is spoken, where it begins and how it transcends through generations. This is a way to educate those who have never had such an experience.
"When we start thinking about language in this way," Velázquez said, "we can bring the community together."