Creole Comes of Age

Courses now meet foreign-language requirement


Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Translational: Creole training has forged connections for Duke programs working in Haiti.

Interviewing Haitian women about breastfeeding habits this past summer, Duke senior Lauren Zalla at first relied heavily on her translator. But soon her comprehension kicked in. By summer's end, she was picking up on subtleties she would have missed had she not studied the language for two semesters before her study-abroad experience.

"As I got used to the accents I could talk to women one-on-one," Zalla says. "It really helped me develop a rapport."

Score one for Duke's fledgling Creole language program, one of several initiatives introduced with the aim of making Duke a go-to place for scholarship on Haiti. Established in 2009, the Creole course gained steam early last year when Duke faculty members adapted a short version of it for medical personnel heading to Haiti following the devastating earthquake in January 2010.

The program has since gained a foothold. Starting this semester, Creole courses, taught by visiting lecturer and Haitian linguist Jacques Pierre, satisfy Duke's undergraduate foreign-language requirement. The language courses complement other efforts under way at the Franklin Humanities Institute's interdisciplinary Haiti Lab.

Faculty members say a strong focus on Haiti is important because the island nation, while small, is a global crossroads. Just two hours off the coast of Florida, the nation of 10 million has roots and influences in Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. Even before the earthquake, Haiti provided students and recent graduates with opportunities to work on development projects and with non-governmental organizations.

With the language training, students now get a totally different view of Haiti, says Kathy Walmer, who directs a DukeEngage program in Haiti and runs Family Health Ministries, the NGO with which Zalla worked. "If you can talk to an individual one-on-one, it makes the experience far more authentic," she says. "If you filter it, you'll miss the nuances."

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