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Language Labs Help Global Health Students Build Cultural Literacy

February 19, 2018
Xinia Fernandez Vargas
Students in the Spanish section recently participated in a Skype call with Xinia Fernandez Vargas, a Costa Rican expert on domestic and gender violence. Photo by Bethzaida Fernandez.

To succeed in the field, global health researchers and practitioners must become proficient in a number of skills, from project management to research methods to cultural literacy—and the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) works hard to give students opportunities to develop this expertise. This semester, we added a new approach to the undergraduate curriculum mix to get at the cultural literacy part of the equation: pairing the “Fundamentals of Global Health” course with weekly language tutorials offered in French, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin. 

Language practice, though, is not the main goal in these “Voices of Global Health” courses, as most of the students are nearly fluent. Throughout the semester, students interact with people in local and international communities who speak the language the students are studying, with a focus on health-related topics. 

“We want students to listen to the voices of people in these communities to get their perspective, because we’ve found that helps us better understand health disparities,” said Deb Reisinger, director of the Cultures and Languages across the Curriculum (CLAC) initiative and DGHI affiliate. “Sometimes interventions fail because we don’t talk with members of communities where we’re working, and this is an effort to respond to that need by training students to consider the value of communicating with people in this way.”

For example, in the Spanish section, students are interviewing members of the local Latinx communities about their cultural beliefs and practices regarding health and illness and their experiences with the health system. They’re also Skyping with a Costa Rican expert on domestic and gender violence. Students in the Arabic section are talking via Skype with people who have fled their homes in Syria. 

“These Skype sessions allow our students to develop language competency—by conversing with a native speaker, gain personal insight into health and policy issues, and learn how individuals navigate these systems,” said Maha Houssami, the instructor for the Arabic section. 

While students aren’t required to take the two courses concurrently, the topics addressed in the half-credit language courses roughly mirror those in the “Fundamentals of Global Health” syllabus, taught by David Boyd, the Hymowitz Professor of the Practice of Global Health. So, for example, if Boyd focuses on maternal health in a given week, the Mandarin language section might involve discussions or activities that give students opportunities to explore maternal health issues specific to China. The language faculty also try to take student interests and needs into account when planning class activities, depending on students’ plans to travel for research, service projects or study abroad. 

“The synergies created between the CLAC courses and ‘Fundamentals of Global Health’ dramatically enhance the student experience and improve both the language and cultural competence skills our global health students need for their experiential learning requirement and their careers,” said Boyd.  “I’m grateful not only to Dr. Reisinger and the professors teaching the courses, but also to the Trinity College administration for giving students this exciting opportunity. I hope we’ll be able offer even more language options in the future.”

The student response has been enthusiastic. “The activities in the language course have helped me realize the importance of culture in global health,” said Jackie Perez ’21, who is enrolled in “Fundamentals of Global Health” and the Spanish language lab. “Looking at specific cultural impacts on health in Latin American countries has definitely enhanced my global health course experience.” Perez also finds the language practice to be helpful, since she’s planning to study abroad in Latin American and work with Latinx communities after graduating from Duke. 

Junior Marivi Howell-Arza will need to put her Arabic skills to use this summer while working on a refugee resettlement project in Connecticut. The language course, she says, is helping her prepare not only for that project but also for her intended career as a clinical psychologist for refugee communities. “The Arabic course has been immensely helpful in putting concepts from the global health course in perspective,” she said. “For example, we’ve interviewed refugees about their lives in relation to global health as well as discussed the Sustainable Development Goals in Arabic.”

At the end of the semester, students enrolled in “Voices in Global Health” courses will participate in a poster session, where they’ll present case studies of their work with language communities. 

Learn more about Cultures and Languages across the Curriculum.

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Emily Nagler and Jackie Perez
Spanish students Emily Nagler (left) and Jackie Perez work on the activity "Discovering your Cultural Diversity" as part of the class discussion on intercultural competence. Photo by Bethzaida Fernandez.

Looking at specific cultural impacts on health in Latin American countries has definitely enhanced my global health course experience.

Jackie Perez '21

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