Name: Sean Sapp
Location of Study: Belgium
Program of Study: University of Gent
A brief personal bio:
My name is Sean Sapp and I am a second-year PhD candidate in the History department. My periods of interest are the High and Late Middle Ages and my area of specialty is Late Medieval Burgundy. I am especially interested in the Late Medieval Burgundian court and religious patronage, as well as the religious officials at court.
Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:
The SLA Grant is essential to my further development as a medieval historian and member of the international community of Burgundian scholars. Dutch is the primary language of most scholars of Late Medieval Burgundy and they still have a vibrant publishing community within their native language. Any historian that hopes to make a significant impact within the subfield, or even to make an original contribution, must first understand the state of the field and that includes the scholarship in Dutch. Additionally, Dutch had emerged as a vernacular by the Late Middle Ages, so acquiring Dutch will grant me access to an additional source base by which I can interest with Burgundian sources. Dutch is especially valuable for part of my proposed project, which explores how Burgundian religious doctrine affected local levels of society. Most administrative writing was done in Latin, so Dutch sources provide a unique manner of access into how people reacted to these changes, outside of the Burgundian administration.
What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:
I am taking two Dutch courses, with speaking, listening, reading, and writing components. I realistically hope to be able to communicate with some ease with my Dutch colleagues. More importantly, I expect to be able to read Dutch with fluency after this grant. The written component of the language is the most important aspect to my further development and growth as a scholar and I will dedicate the most time to perfecting this part of learning Dutch.
My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:
- At the end of my summer study abroad, I will be able to communicate in Dutch with native speakers on academic topics such as medieval and early modern history and religion.
- At the end of my summer study abroad, I will be able to navigate Dutch scholarship so that I will be able to effectively conduct archival research and consume Dutch historiography.
- At the end of my summer study abroad, I will be able to speak, write, and listen to Dutch at a proficiency level of A2+ and read at a B1+ level.
My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:
To maximize my experience at the University of Gent, I have two separate plans that I think will greatly expedite my acquisition of Dutch. First, I have already purchased and began reading through a basic Dutch grammar. Grammar takes the longest to learn and if I get a step ahead by familiarizing myself now, relearning will be much easier and I can focus on acquiring a strong reading proficiency with more focus on vocabulary. Second, I have already reached out to some of the Dutch medieval historians at the University of Gent. I plan on meeting with the senior scholars formally to network and discuss my dissertation. More importantly for my Dutch learning, I also plan to meet their graduate students so that I may develop relationships but also practice my newly acquired Dutch!
Reflective Journal Entry 1:
Week 1: Getting Acclimated
My first week in Gent officially ended on Friday, and it has been a hectic one. The day of my flight, my host university cancelled my A1 course, the equivalent of a 101 course in the States. I had to speed my entire first weekend in Belgium cramming so that I could place into the Dutch A2 level. On Tuesday, I thankfully succeded in my task and began class that same day. The remainder of the week I have spent little time exploring Gent, as I have been spending most of my time trying to catch up to the compentency of my classmates in the A2 course. I have greatly enjoyed my class so far, but have struggled occassionally because the instruction is entirely in Dutch. Amusingly, because of the diversity of my classmates (some are from Vietnam, Afghanistan, Thailand, Italy, and South Africa) the instructor reverts to English to explain concepts the class did not grasp.
While I have not yet explored Gent to my satisfaction, I did discover the local culinary speciality of Gent while eating at a well-recommended restaurant, ‘t paradijse. The dish is called waterzooi, or, outside of Gent, Gentse Waterzooi. Although water is in the name of the dish, it is now prepared in a large pot of vegetable broth, mixed with eggs and cream or milk. The main part of the dish is traditionally fish, but the Gentenaar, the people of Gent, have shifted towards using chicken. The remainder of the recipe varies by restaurant. ‘t paradijse used leeks and potatoes with parsley for flavor. The server told me other places use thyme as a seasoning and carrots and onions as vegetables. The dish is extremely fortifying and served me well after such a long week.
Reflective Journal Entry 2:
Week 2: Interacting with Gentenaar, new and old
The second week of my trip has gone much smoother than the first. I have caught up to most of my classmates in knowledge of Dutch, so I have had a little more time to devote to exploring the city and interacting with its people. Gent is an old, proud city, a city full of deep religious ties, but of few practicing members.
It has six massive churches, St. Anne’s, St. James, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, St. Nicholas, St. Michael’s, and Our Lady of St. Peter’s. Four of the churches reach back to the High Middle Ages and Gent’s citizens proudly tell of how beautiful and awe-inspiring the churches are. I have visited all of the churches and taken thorough pictures, so hopefully those will appear on the blog. I visited St. Bavo’s, St. Nicholas, and St. Michael’s on the same day, and the experience was a little disconcerting. All three churches border on the heart of Gent, the Korenmarkt (Corn Market), and they likewise all were constructed in the Gothic style. The churches on distinctly different looking on the outside: St. Bavo’s towers over the other two and St. Nicholas very much resembles Notre Dame in Paris. On the inside, the churches arched ceilings, stained glass, raised black and white marble floors, and decoration all greatly resemble one another.
As I looked through my pictures, in some the only way to differentiate was by the slight color differences of the brick. I asked a curator at St. Bavo’s Cathedral if there was any explanation for the heavily interior similarities. She laughed and told me that question was asked quite frequently. The resemblances, she said, stem from the heavy influence exerted by the guilds and merchants of Gent. In all of the churches, side chapels were constructed for individual guilds as private spaces to pray. Naturally, this became a source of competition for the guilds to demonstrate wealth and religious piety. The curator indicated that the guilds who created the most lavish and tastefully decorated chapels won out and that the other guilds then mimicked the aesthetic across the city.
Many of the churches today serve a dual function: This weekend St. Nicholas’s hosted an arts festival in the front half of the church, while still holding services in the back half. The two parts of the church can be separated by glass doors, which are not soundproof, so the sounds from the individual events leak into one another. Likewise, St. Bavo’s Cathedral holds regular services, but it likewise houses the Van Eyck brother’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a piece of art with a dramatic past. Visitors must enter the cathedral and then enter a back room, after paying a small fee, to view the artwork.
Reflective Journal Entry 3:
Week 3: Het Lichtfestival
My third week in Belgium has been a relatively uneventful one. After passing the halfway point in my Dutch course, I am spending more and more time studying in the library and less time exploring Belgium and the city of Gent. However, because of my focus in medieval history, I have been meeting with medieval history professors at the University of Gent throughout my stay. During one of my meetings, one of the professors asked me if I had heard of Gent’s Lichtfestival.
Het Lichtfestival, or the light festival, is actually quite a recent event in Gent’s history. It began in 2009, with a new festival every three years, running from the end of January to early February. Gent has other festivals, such as Flemish Heritage Day and the Gentish Festivities, both of which have traditionally enjoyed the most popularity in the city. Likewise, both of those events celebrate the heritage and unique culture endemic to Flanders and its cities. However, when asking my classmates and instructor about Gent’s holidays, everyone mentioned the Lichtfestival first. It may be that because the light festival is a more recent and fresher event that the Gentenaar have embraced it so enthusiastically. Everyone unanimously declared the light festival to be a very moving and beautiful experience and one that resonated with all of Gent’s citizens, new and old.
After getting my classmates’ perspectives, I thought I would seek out a more authoritative voice. I went to the Gent tourism center to ask about the festival. The person with whom I spoke was likewise very enthusiastic about the Lichtfestival, noting that the third one, this past winter, was an astonishing success. Gent has a population of around 250,000. During the Lichtfestival, the official recounted how over 600,000 people visited the city over four days to view the lights. The tourist official also told me that essentially anyone could make a light show- professional artists, university and high school students, and even children- again reinforcing that the festival is meant to be accessible to everyone.
Reflective Journal Entry 4:
Week 4: Goodbye to Gent
Today, I took my final exam in my Dutch A2 course. The course has been a challenging one and a different one than any other language course I have ever pursued. Having spent nearly a month in the classroom, I have become close to a number of my fellow classmates. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my class is exceedingly diverse, with peoples from nearly every continent represented.
In a strange turn of events, two of the people with whom I have become close come from Iraq and Afghanistan. As one can imagine, their backgrounds provided for an interesting discussion of the United States and its place in the world. Both of the men, Mahmoud and Zaheer, are doctors trained in their respective countries. Both likewise fled their home countries in the wake of the recent wars.
Zaheer, the doctor from Afghanistan, had an extremely positive view of the United States and its foreign policy in regards to Afghanistan. This is not especially surprising because Zaheer fled Afghanistan to seek political asylum in Belgium around the time that the United States started scaling down its military efforts in the area. He had collaborated with American doctors and soldiers throughout the war and because of this, was no longer accepted within his community. On the first day of class when he heard I was American, he immediately engaged with me and told me stories about his home. As time went on, he would more regularly tell me how difficult he found it living in Western Europe and how he would prefer to live either in the United States or return to Afghanistan. The Afghani community in Belgium is quite small, so Zaheer and his family basically live in cultural isolation.
Mahmoud, the Iraqi doctor was likewise friendly with me from the outset of the class. However, he had a much different perspective on the foreign policy of the United States than Zaheer. Mahmoud was from Baghdad and was educated there. He is around 40, so he remembersboth Desert Storm and the Iraq War. He was much more critical of the United States in regards to the initial justification for beginning the most Iraq War. The issue that most upset him however, was the current situation in Iraq with ISIS. Both he and Zaheer expressed frustration that the West has been hesitant to seriously address the threat of ISIS (a much more legitimate reason to destabilize the region for both of them).
Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:
I have varying levels of language competency in French, German, and Latin, so I assumed that learning Dutch would not differ much, especially at the A1-A2 level. I was wrong. The Belgian way of teaching focuses much less on steady and measured progress. There are no vocabulary or grammar quizzes, with few reading exercises as well. Instead, the instructor relies upon heavy classroom participation in reading, speaking, and writing exercises in which she calls upon individual students to recite their answers. The class is small, so one must be very well prepared. If the student does not know a word, or know how to say it in Dutch, he or she must to draw upon their extant vocabulary to describe the unknown word. As I mentioned in my other blog posts, my class was exceedingly diverse. My classmates were from all over the world and we spent our downtime discussing our respective cultures- what we liked, our place in the world, how to globally cooperate, and so on. After much effort, I did meet my goal. Having passed my course, I can successfully communicate at the A2 level, and my instructor was particularly pleased with my writing and reading skills. Since my return, I have begun reading Dutch articles with a dictionary handy, but the going has not been too slow.
Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:
My SLA was an excellent one, and one I will not soon forget. My two biggest insights from my time in Gent concern linguistic difference within the same language, as well as the difficulties of political asylum. These two things are obviously very different and came from drastically different experiences in Belgium. The first, linguistic difference within Dutch, was apparent from the moment my plane arrived in Brussels. As I took the train from the airport to Gent, I listened to a group of teenagers speaking Dutch, but with many French phrases and emphasis. In Gent, the accent was completely different- more throaty and less nasally than the Brussels one. I asked my instructor about the sound difference and she recounted how the Belgian pronunciation of Dutch, Flemish if you like, changes every five to ten miles. These shifts made it especially hard to get an ear for the language, because it never sounded quite the same. My second takeaway comes from Belgium serving as a major country of political asylum for refugees from the Middle East. I previously knew about the large Tunisian and Algerian populations in France and the tensions there, but I met many students and professionals from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. While my fellow students were thankful to have been granted asylum, they noted that they Belgians did not treat them particularly well. I would advise future or current applicants to do thorough research on their country of interest. There are often great multicultural experiences in countries that are seemingly small and monolithic.
How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:
I will continue my Dutch, especially my focus on reading Dutch in scholarly articles. I have already begun reading articles, and with continued practice over the next few months, I will move to books as well. I likewise am already applying for grants to return to Belgium and to Gent for a much longer period in the future. If I manage to win some of these awards, I already have an excellent language base and knowledge base of the country upon which to build. If things go according to plan, the SLA grant will have been the first building block to a successful career in academia: my experiences in Gent this summer afforded my scholarly connections that I hope to rely for many years.