Professor Wins Award for Leadership in World Languages and Cultures

Kreng jai.”

This Thai phrase, which means “awe of the heart’,” is one of the most difficult Thai expressions to grasp, according to Richard Donato, a foreign language education professor of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.

Donato explains that the phrase is often said when a person does not want to burden another or be inconsiderate of another’s time or happiness. For example, if a person is sick and someone offers to pick up the person’s prescription at the pharmacy, but the person feels it would be an inconvenience, that person will refuse the offer by saying “kreng jai.”

The customary response back is often “Mai tong kreng jai,” meaning there is no need to feel this way.

“The ‘jai’ part of each of these phrases means heart. That’s different from English, where many of the language’s emotional-laden words have to do with the head,” said Donato, who is also chair of the school’s Department of Instruction and Learning.

Donato uses the example of “kreng jai” to illustrate the deeply rooted connection between language and culture. The phrase is an example of something that holds cultural meaning but is difficult to translate into other languages. In language, he says, we find cultural meanings and develop new perspectives on our relationship with the world.

Recently, Donato’s dedication to the profession was recognized with the Frank Mulhern Outstanding Professional Leadership Award of the Pennsylvania State Modern Language Association (PSMLA). This award recognizes a member who has provided outstanding leadership in the teaching and learning of world languages and cultures and who has contributed significantly to the work of PSMLA.

Donato received the Leadership Award in October 2019 in a special ceremony during the conference in State College, Pa., as PSMLA celebrated its 100th anniversary. The PSMLA conference was held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary the Pennsylvania Council on International Education. As a professional organization, PSMLA is dedicated to the teaching and learning of world languages and cultures from kindergarten through university levels.

Dedicated to Fostering Global Understanding in Students

Donato’s involvement with PSMLA began in 1989, the same year he joined the University of Pittsburgh as a faculty member of the Department of Instruction and Learning with a joint appointment in the Department of French and Italian. Donato served on the board of directors of PSMLA, where, as editor, he revamped the organization’s professional journal, the Pennsylvania Language Forum.

Donato is involved in the profession beyond the state level. He was on the board of directors and chaired the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. He also routinely presents at the national conference, sponsored by American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages, most recently on “Building a Language Classroom Discourse Community”

Indeed, through his work with PSMLA and other national organizations, Donato has widely presented his research on the teaching and learning of foreign languages and cultures throughout the United States and in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Mali, Colombia, and Finland.

With a career that has taken him around the world, Donato aims to train future foreign language instructors to foster a greater sense of global understanding in their students. He says that teachers have a responsibility to help their students cultivate multilingual and multicultural identities in a global society.

“Learning a second language opens you up to other parts of the world. French, for example, is spoken in parts of Europe, the United States, West Africa, and Canada,” said Donato. “Spanish is no longer a foreign language in the United States but it is our second language. “

As future foreign language teachers, Donato’s students learn how to integrate the teaching of culture directly into language instruction. Indeed, the two are inseparable, Donato states, “as a result, students develop cultural perspectives they did not know before and, in the process, develop deeper understandings of their own culture and what it means to be a global citizen working for a socially just world.”

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