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Argentina-born Dr Carla Grosman-Smith is a former professional dancer as well as an academic, so physical expressiveness is a natural part of her teaching style.
While this might seem to reinforce the popular stereotype of Latino exuberance, she says one of her missions is to encourage new students of Spanish to get a better understanding of the diverse cultures of Latin America and to look beyond cultural stereotypes. She kicks off a new Spanish language programme at Massey University’s Albany campus next year.
“There is more to Colombia than drug cartels, just as there’s more to Argentina than tango, or football in Brazil,” she says.
Dr Grosman-Smith, whose research area is Latin American culture and cinema, says there are many benefits and opportunities for students of Spanish language in the 21st century.
With more trade and business opportunities for New Zealand as thriving Latin American economies are predicted to grow by four per cent or more next year, knowledge of language, culture, lifestyle and customs is vital for successful relationship-building and negotiations, she says.
More New Zealanders are traveling to the region for leisure and adventure. Language proficiency– as well as knowledge of the distinctive cultures of Latin America – enriches the experience, says Dr Grosman-Smith.
She says language learning also has many broader benefits. As well as helping to develop overall intellectual agility by learning to think and express oneself in a different language, it also encourages respect and empathy for different cultural perspectives.
Dr Grosman-Smith, whose PhD explored the crisis and reconstruction of Utopia in the Latin American cinema of the neo-liberal era from 1995-2005, says Latin America represents a region of hope and prosperity in an uncertain global future.
“Young people need hope, something to build on for the future,” she says. “Latin America is one of the last Utopian places on the planet,” she says. “Latin American economies are growing, and there are many positive changes under the new social welfare government systems because they acknowledge the recovery of civil power.”
Dr Grosman-Smith came to New Zealand 12 years ago with very little English after completing an award-winning Masters thesis at the University of Cordoba in Argentina, where she studied film script writing, direction and film criticism. She is a trained classical ballet and contemporary dancer, and has worked widely in theatre, dance and documentary-making in Argentina.
She learned English here through a range of jobs, including working in a rest home, and in a café in Kaiwaka called – coincidentally – Eutopia [sic]. She also taught Spanish to children at a language academy in Auckland and offered private lessons to adults before taking up a tutoring position and doing her second MA of Arts and later her PhD at the University of Auckland.
She will teach first year language papers in Semester One and Two, and a Spanish culture and history paper at Summer School in 2013, making Spanish the third language now on offer as part of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ expansion at the Albany campus. Japanese and Chinese languages are already available.
Dr Leonel Alvarado, who is head of the University’s Spanish language programme in the School of Humanities at the Manawatu campus, says Spanish language and cultural studies resonate strongly for many New Zealanders – particularly Mäori – in relation to the diverse history of indigenous cultures in Latin America. Pronunciation is also similar, making it a language that fluent Mäori language speakers feel an affinity with.
He and Dr Grosman-Smith envisage a range of Spanish-flavoured cultural activities flourishing at the Albany campus next year, including hosting the annual Latin American film festival organised by the School of Humanities in Manawatu for the past 11 years at Albany, to Latin American events featuring traditional dishes and dances to celebrate the diversity of the region.