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Robert F. Graboyes, MSHA, PhD

Health Economist | rfgraboyes@gmail.com | www.robertgraboyes.com

 

Languages

At the University of Richmond, I was both economics professor and director of Language Across the Curriculum. I explained this dual role in a series of recordings in French, Spanish Portuguese, and English; you can hear them here:

Part I: French
Part II: Spanish
Part III: Portuguese
Part IV: English

And here’s the text:

 

in French: Lots of people ask me why, as a professor of economics, I am also director of a foreign language program. My answer, in part, is that an ability to speak French made it possible for me to receive my first job offer as an economist. In 1983, I was finishing the last courses for my doctorate at Columbia University. Suddenly, by chance, I obtained an interview to become the economic specialist for sub-Saharan Africa at the Chase Manhattan Bank. This economist would have to travel in French-speaking countries, such as Ivory Coast, Senegal, and France itself. It was important that he be able to attend meetings and to talk casually with people in the marketplaces and on the street. Fortunately, I had studied French in high school and in college. I could speak and read well enough and, as a result, received the job. Similarly, my wife was hired by the Columbia University Library because of her prior studies in four languages. Because of our experiences, I always advised students that knowledge of foreign languages was crucial to their careers in business or in other professions.

 

in Spanish: Ten years later, in 1993, I took a vacation in France with my wife and young son, and we also visited friends in the Basque country of Spain. I had never studied Spanish, but, thanks to my French, I could at least understand signs in the windows, traffic commands, and so forth. I could also understand the restaurant menus – which was a great thing, given our family’s love of food. With the help of my small book of phrases and one cassette tape, I acquired enough Spanish to conduct business in stores and banks. I enjoyed the language and began thinking that a knowledge of Spanish would be a major advantage in my career. After we returned to the United States, I purchased a series of over 80 cassette tapes, all produced by the Department of State of the United States. I listened to these tapes almost constantly – in my car, while cutting the grass, while washing the dishes. Between tapes, I read Spanish grammars, short stories, and newspapers. After four months, I was able to speak fairly well. And shortly thereafter, I wrote two articles for the local Spanish press in Richmond.

 

in Portuguese: My experience with Portuguese is a little different. As a hobby, I’m a musician – a pianist and guitarist. Very often, I play Brazilian music – samba, bossa nova, choro, MPB, and other styles. In playing music, it is very helpful to understand the lyrics of the songs. The words tell you a great deal about how the song should be played. Until 1994, I had no comprehension of what these Brazilian songs were trying to say. So, I just did the best I could. After finishing my Spanish tapes, I purchased around 20 tapes of Brazilian Portuguese. As I did with Spanish, I listened to them in the car, around the house, in the yard, while doing exercise. After three months, I could understand the songs pretty well, and I could carry on a conversation in Portuguese. Brazilians have mentioned that my accent can be a little surprising. In addition to the language tapes, I also learned a lot about the language by listening to music and repeating the words while I played. Many of Brazil’s greatest recording artists are from Bahia or other areas of the northern coast, which has a very distinct accent. So sometimes, I speak with some of the accent of that region. For an analogy, just imagine a Brazilian guy trying to learn English by imitating the songs of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

 

in English: When I began teaching at the University of Richmond, I learned of a program called Language Across the Curriculum. LAC is a nationwide program that originated with the U.S. Department of Education with the goal of improving America’s capacity in foreign languages. LAC offers small language immersion classes in any discipline. Traditionally, these classes were mostly in subjects such as Russian art, Italian history, French poetry, etc. I decided to offer courses in Statistics and Economics, both in French and in Spanish. These classes proved quite popular, so they have continued for the five years since that time. … Eventually, the Dean of our Business School asked if I would take over the management of the program for the entire university, and I agreed to do so. While my foreign language training cannot compare with that of my colleagues in the literature departments, I have enjoyed the challenge. As our students have more exposure to foreign languages, I believe they become more competitive in job markets and more engaged in public discourse. … Recently one of our former LAC students wrote to say that she had received a big promotion on Wall Street in part because of her experience as a teaching assistant in LAC. It’s a pleasure to be involved in a program that furthers our students’ ambitions in business and elsewhere. It is also satisfying to help my business school students to become more internationally astute. For these and other reasons, I consider LAC to be a vital component of my teaching of economics and business.