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By Robert Gillespie '78
You've been displaced. What you relied on in the past is no longer available. You've got to start from scratch. Think in French, Adrianna Paliyenko tells her beginning language students. Try to stop filtering through English. Make a leap of faith.
"I remind them that I'm not a native speaker," Paliyenko said one day last February before heading off to teach French 125. Raised in a family that spoke Ukrainian at home, she learned French in high school and college and, in her graduate school minor, also gained "familiarity" with Russian. "I've been where they are," she said. "I try to put myself in the seat of my student."
The seats in the classroom loop around her in a horseshoe. She darts around the space, encouraging student after student, correcting pronunciation, repeating phrases. She hands one student a stuffed doll--the movie character ET--when the exercise involves asking a personal, perhaps embarrassing question. "Il est malade?" says the student, his discomfort eased by the prop. "Ohh!" she exclaims, clapping. His phrasing is on the money.
Associate Professor of French Adrianna Paliyenko sweeps her charges along with chipper humor and enthusiasm. A specialist in 19th-century French poetry whose résumé includes a lengthy list of articles and a book on Rimbaud and Claudel, she teaches the full range of French courses from beginning French to senior seminars. But in French 125 she's talking with baby speakers of the language.
"I couldn't explain why I love this so much," she said. "It's an extension of my really deep commitment to somehow make the world filled with people who can communicate and understand the point of view of the other."
She wonders if this linguistic bent runs in her Slavic family. Her father, who escaped at the end of World War II from a forced labor camp at the age of 14, did duty as an interpreter in six languages in a displaced persons camp in Poland. Later he immigrated to Canada. Even after his work as a chemical engineer took the family to North Carolina when Paliyenko was 2, her mother maintained Ukrainian traditions and conducted Ukrainian school at home on Saturdays.
At 16 Paliyenko received a summer scholarship to the Harvard Institute of Ukrainian Study for formal language study and--because her home language was interlaced with Polish--relearned Ukrainian from scratch. During a Fulbright fellowship in Paris between her Boston University M.A. and University of North Carolina Ph.D. she met weekly with a group of adult children of Ukrainian refugees. Switching from French to English to Ukrainian, she says, was "gymnastic."
"You never know when that extra language may open a door to study, to work, to travel, to simple gestures of friendship on the street," she said.
Language--meticulously crafted "to frame, conceptualize, historicize," she said--is the lifeblood of her scholarship, too. Her work on French women poets has become increasingly interdisciplinary, reflecting her deepening immersion in history, psychology and art and her appreciation for literature and art as cultural documents.
In Paliyenko's course The Cultural Legacy of 19th-Century France, says Anne Garinger '01, a French and international studies major, "she did a great job" as the students expertly resuscitated the culture of the 1800s. Delving into economics, the shift of power between social classes, slavery and colonization, the architectural reorganization of Paris, female hysteria, they discovered how poets, novelists and artists throughout the century represented and called that culture into question.
"The great thing about the course--we had to do our own research and make two presentations," Garinger said. "She emphasized exploring all possible sources. We learned from our own research. It was helpful for all of my classes."
Teaching, Paliyenko says, is both imparting knowledge and facilitating learning.
"I want to be fully present to my audience at every level," she said. "It's like my life. I switch languages at home. It's very natural, very organic."
And sometimes the stuff of thrillers.
In 1993 Paliyenko and her husband, Levering Sherman, adopted Ludmila, Yuriy and Natalia, Ukrainian siblings who spoke not a word of English. As she and the children waited at the Borispol Airport in Kiev to depart Ukraine, out marched two men to detain them. The children remember this, she says, as "the time Mama yelled at the KGB. I spoke Ukrainian fluently, and that enabled me to become more of a player." Ultimately she reached an official who released them. "Knowing a foreign language," she said, "turned my life around.
"The children are my story. Witnessing their rebirth feeds into my professional life, too. It solidified what I do. It reminded me of what it takes to develop a cultural identity. It's an intimidating, frightening process. But language is a cornerstone."
Paliyenko recalls her three-year teaching stint in her early 20s in a rural North Carolina high school, listening to talk about abolishing the language requirement--a bad idea, she says, at any educational level.
"We'd be protecting them from a very real part of living. We have to engage with cultural differences, and a large part of that is learning a foreign language," she said. "The onus is on us to show why it is increasingly essential to a sense of community. Language is the key."
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