Monthly Archives: July 2007

Claire Kramsch

The NNEST Caucus Member of the Month
August 2007


Prof. Claire Kramsch
ckramsch [at] berkeley [dot] edu

Ana Wu: Prof. Kramsch, could you tell us your background and how you became interested in being a professor?
Prof. Kramsch: I don’t know if I ever imagined myself “becoming a professor”. I was born, raised and educated in France as the French citizen that I was, and studied seven years at the university in Paris and Munich. I was trained to be a teacher of German language and literature in the French National Educational System and that’s what I had aspired to be. Fate had it that I came to the United States and got to teach other kinds of students in another educational system, first at M.I.T for 25 years, then one year at Cornell, then the last 17 years at UC Berkeley. But my rigorous intellectual preparation at the French Ecole Normale and at the Sorbonne helped me ask the right questions and know where to look to find answers, when my American students had difficulties that I did not expect nor understand.

Ana Wu: You were born in France and taught German in an English speaking country. As a non-native speaker, what have been your most vivid memories (positive/negative) in your academic and/or professional practices?
Prof. Kramsch: I remember being extremely concerned about the legitimacy that I had, as a French national, teaching German in the U.S., even though I had the German name of my husband, so I could pass for a native German. Surely someone would discover that I was a freak. With the years, that feeling disappeared and got replaced by a growing impatience at not understanding what my American students did not understand about the language, the culture, the German mindset. Was it because they were Americans? Because they were tech nerds? Because they were just more conservative politically than I was? Or could it be that they were just less inhibited in their questioning, bolder in their thinking, more ready to admit that they didn’t know some things I thought everyone should know like who was Bismarck or what is Romanticism? I started realizing I was going to have to justify to myself and to them why on earth it was worth learning who Birmarck was or why it was important for them as Americans to know about German romanticism. This is a pedagogic principle I have never forgotten: Explain explicitly what you are in the business of doing and why, and how it is relevant to your students’ lives.

Ana Wu: You are the recipient of the Distinguished Scholarship and Service Award 2007 given by the American Association for Applied Linguistics, and had received many other awards in the past. What advice would you give to NNES graduate students or novice teachers who want to have a fulfilling teaching career in an English spoken country or in their homecountry?
Prof. Kramsch: To non-native speakers of English who studied or worked in an English-speaking country, I would say: “By virtue of having lived in an English-speaking country, or if only by virtue of having studied another language and culture, you have the opportunity to see your own language and culture as well as the foreign culture both from the inside and from the outside. Never lose that double perspective; it will enable you to both enjoy any cultural experience that comes your way and take none for granted. For example, in the beginning I tended to get locked into a dichotomous thinking of the we-the French/they-the Americans kind. “we French, we think like this, they Americans do things like that”; after a while I realized I was unduly generalizing from my family, my social class, my hometown. Many French in America did not think like me, speak like me. Vice versa I attributed all my woes of miscommunication to the fact that I was a foreigner and that “the Americans” systematically bashed or misunderstood the French. But there were many different kinds of Americans, some of whom admired and understood the French very well.”

To non-native speakers of English who plan to teach English in a country that privileges native speaker teachers, I would say: “As a near native speaker, you have a precious double vision and you can model for your students the ideal non-native speaker they can become. In our increasingly plurilingual, pluricultural world, you are exactly the kind of role model they need, for you can not only act like a native speaker if you wish, but you can also explain why native speakers act the way they do and what the students should emulate in them and what they would rather not.”


Ana Wu:Many times, international graduate students in applied linguistics or TESOL programs are very concerned with improving their language proficiency, which may result in a low-profile social identity and marginalization. What are the other things (if any) do you think these students need to consider in order to become a successful instructor or professor?
Prof. Kramsch: As a NNES, I would use every opportunity to become as proficient and fluent as I can in the language. At the end of my studies, I took the most difficult German novel I could find and learned every single word I could not readily translate by heart. I ended up learning a good ten words per page! I found out that at the advanced level you improve your speaking by reading, and by learning vocabulary, not by doing conversations. And listening to recordings of novels, plays, newsreels etc. For, in order to become a successful instructor, you need most of all to feel secure and on top of it linguistically. No amount of teaching strategies, imaginative activities, well thought-out lesson plans will replace the secure feeling of having at the tip of your tongue at least 2 or 3 ways of saying the same thing, 2-3 synonyms, 2-3 alternative phrasings for each thing you want to say.

Ana Wu:Your research interests include multilingualism, multiculturalism, context and culture in language teaching, language acquisition and socialization, among others. Can you think of any other particular positive attributes that NNES writers have?
Prof. Kramsch: Many NNES writers have commented on the benefits of writing in a language that you know well but that is not your own: Samuel Beckett, Julian Greene, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Nancy Huston, Eva Hoffman, Andrei Makine, Claude Esteban and many others. They all seem to find in one language resonances of the others and to use that as the source of creativity. I quote here my favorite testimony from Sylvia Molloy, an Argentinian Professor of Spanish at NYU, native speaker of Spanish and French, near native speaker of English.

One always writes from an absence, the choice of a language automatically signifying the postponement of another. What at first would seem an imposition – why does one have to choose – quickly turns into an advantage. The absence of what is postponed continues to work, obscurely, on the chosen language, suffusing it, even better, contaminating it, with an autrement dit that brings it unexpected eloquence. That alterity, or alteration, also disturbs the reading habits of the bilingual subject. . .

I wrote the word ‘alterity’ which brings to my mind the French for satisfying one’s thirst, désaltérer. The writing of a bilingual writer, I would venture, is of need always altered, never “disaltered”;’ always thirsty, always wanting, never satisfied. And it is also, in another sense, alterada, in the way I used to hear the Spanish term used by my mother, my aunts, when referring to somebody who was slightly off, who could not control her thoughts, her voice.” (p.74 ).

(Sylvia Molloy, “Bilingualism, Writing, and the feeling of not quite being there” in I. de Courtivron (ed.) Lives in Translation. Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity, pp.69-77 New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

Ana Wu: Thank you for your time and for such inspiring interview!