Learning a language is tied to learning about another culture, which teaches you more about your own culture.

Rebekah Slodounik

It inevitably startles the class, but at the end of a well-done student presentation in German, Rebekah Slodounik raps on a table with her knuckles to show her appreciation.

The act is a common form of applause in Germany, and Slodounik uses it to help give students an appreciation of the cultural differences that go hand-in-hand with learning a foreign language.

“It surprises, but it’s a way of recognizing that things in any culture that you think are automatic or natural are not — they are specific to a culture,” says Slodounik, who teaches courses in the interdisciplinary Jewish studies program in addition to her research focus on German Jewish literature and culture. “There are different ways of doing things that aren’t wrong — they’re just different. Learning a language is tied to learning about another culture, which teaches you more about your own culture.”

Slodounik invests heavily in teaching students the finer points of written and spoken German, but she also engages students regarding their other interests and encourages them to relate to the language through those interests. Through their appreciation of the German perspective in those areas, students can often develop a better understanding of German thinking and culture as a whole, making them more robust and refined global citizens.

Slodounik’s own area of focus is on the transmission of memory through narratives in Jewish post-Holocaust literature. She examines the often complicated texts of descendants of Holocaust survivors, paying particular attention to differences among various genres of writing — from newspapers and short stories to graphic novels, as well as texts from sources such as popular songs and even social media.

Like any story passed down from generation to generation, the narratives of Holocaust survivors often hinge on the reliability of the storyteller, depending on his or her memory and the portions they choose to emphasize or embellish. The further removed we get from the actual event, the greater the importance assigned to the memories imparted by the storytellers.

“Different narrators often have different narrative strategies, and the narrative can be affected by memory,” Slodounik says. “Everyone as they tell stories may add or forget details when they’re telling them to another group.”

Posted October 2018