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Haitian conference to honor IU professor

By Alyssa Goldman

Albert Valdman never thought he was going to have a career in Creole.

Forty-six years after he began teaching the language native to Haiti, Valdman is being recognized at the 21st-annual Haitian Studies Association Conference this weekend at IU with a lifetime achievement award, and IU’s Creole Institute is being honored for having one of the top Creole programs.

Valdman is now the Rudy Professor Emeritus of French, Italian and Linguistics and director of the institute.

IU was the first university to teach Creole languages, he said, and Valdman was the first to teach Haitian Creole.

Universities around the globe use IU’s Creole textbooks and dictionaries. Most recently, Valdman was the head of efforts to create the most comprehensive and most complete Haitian Creole-to-English dictionary.

Valdman has been an IU faculty member since 1960 and has found the experience of guiding others gratifying.

“The most rewarding thing is to train and to guide people who want to follow in your path and do things that you are interested in,” he said. “I’ve directed about 50 dissertations and many of my former students have done incredible work.”

How Valdman began teaching Creole starts on a first date in 1957.

While he was receiving his doctorate in French at Cornell University, he met his future wife who had just gotten back from a trip to Haiti. She was so impressed with Haiti that Valdman became intrigued by the language.

So, he decided to go into a completely different dissertation and field.

Valdman told her that he would like to create teaching materials and a dictionary for Creole languages.

When Valdman began teaching at IU, he had a Haitian student and some of his pupils wanted to learn the language.

He learned Creole by creating materials to teach other people. Essentially, he taught himself how to write and speak Creole and from there taught others.

“The nice thing about teaching is that you have to learn new things to make sure you know more than your students,” Valdman said. “I think it’s exciting to be interacting with students. ... We try to communicate knowledge. Teaching is an interactive activity. As you teach, you also learn.”

Marc Prou, current executive of the national Haitian Studies Association, and other members of the Haitian Studies Association believe he is one of the most influential people in the language’s study.

“Valdman is a mentor, a former professor, he is a colleague and a longtime friend,” Prou said. “It is because of him and the work he has done to advance Haitian Creole that I am who I am today and that I am engaged in linguistic work in Creole.”

He has been a pioneer in the field of innovation of Creole linguists and has guided several generations of Haitian linguists, including Prou.

Last year, the conference was in Haiti. About 150 people are expected to attend the conference, including many international researchers.

The theme of this year’s event is “New Ecologies: Actualizing Global Contributions and Development in Haiti.”  

Elizabeth Cooke, a first-year master’s student in public affairs and environmental science, is volunteering at the conference. While she was in Haiti for seven months she worked on reforestation and an alternative fuel project.

Cooke said the conference will give students an opportunity to learn something new.

“Conference topic interests are of a wide range that is unique to a very specific culture and country,” Cooke said.

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