Meet John Lyon, Chair of the School of Modern Languages

Posted August 17, 2023

Easier travel, better business relationships, and new cultural knowledge — all of these are great reasons to study a new language. And to be sure, students will acquire this and more in a language classroom.

But if you ask John Lyon, the new chair of the School of Modern Languages at Georgia Tech, he will tell you that they will also gain something more ineffable, and perhaps more valuable: a new way of thinking.

“We think in our own language; we use it to build our understanding of a new phenomenon, to innovate and problem-solve, and to teach others what we’ve learned,” says Lyon. “Language both reflects and structures how we interact with the world – and learning another language can expand those boundaries.”

Lyon says that the School of Modern Languages offers courses that build skills and strengths that are unique and essential to an education in a STEM-intensive environment.

“We want our students to innovate, create, and approach problems with a new perspective,” he says. “The humanities in general, and languages in particular, make this possible. When learning a new language, students are also learning to think outside the boundaries of their own culture, their experiences, and how they are accustomed to understanding the world.”

Elevating the Profile of the School of Modern Languages

Moving forward, Lyon is enthusiastic about elevating the School’s profile within the Institute, helping faculty advance in professional rank, and building the School’s interdisciplinary connections, research opportunities, and academic programs.

In the past weeks and months, Lyon says he has seen exciting glimpses of the work being done at the School of Modern Languages — including the Language for Business and Technology (LBAT) program, in which students study languages while immersed in business and technology sectors abroad.

“English is often the language spoken in the boardroom — but the deals don’t get made in the boardroom,” Lyon says. “They get made after the meeting, when people are talking casually, forming interpersonal connections. Those conversations happen in the native language.”

Learning a language also means learning about the culture from which it emerged and in which it is functioning — immensely valuable knowledge in any profession.

“The modern world is a global place, and we face global challenges,” says Lyon. “To be effective in any field, leaders need both linguistic and cultural knowledge to communicate sensitively and clearly across borders.”

“Little Red Riding Hood,” Wounded Bodies, and More: Lyon’s Teaching and Research

In the classroom, Lyon encourages students to explore how cultural themes and ideas are reflected in language and literature. His focus is on 19th-century German literature.

“Literature doesn’t just fall out of the sky,” he says. “It emerges from a very real historical and cultural context — and it addresses questions that we’re still asking today.”

He recently taught a course on Indo-European folk tales, tracing the first scholarship of such stories to the Brothers Grimm at the beginning of the 19th century.

“As we study these common tales, which were passed down through families and gatherings, we see certain patterns emerge that reflect the beliefs, problems, and sensibilities of a culture. Some of the stories are still changing, because we are still changing,” he says.

As an example, he points to the story of “Little Red Riding Hood,” which likely originated as a warning tale to young girls.

“In versions from two centuries ago, Red Riding Hood wasn’t saved at the end,” he says. “She was eaten — and before she was eaten, she usually climbed in bed with the wolf. Today we have much softer versions that speak to our current sensibilities and values.”

The value in folk tales and literature, says Lyon, is in how they help us understand the cultural context from which they emerged, and in some cases, the context and form in which they continue to thrive today.

Lyon’s research is also driven by the pursuit of this understanding. In his work, he draws unexpected connections between literary themes and the cultural and philosophical trends of the 19th century.

His first book, for example, explores early-19th-century authors’ depictions of wounded bodies, and discusses how these portrayals of life experienced through pain and disability also address much larger questions raised by philosophers of the period.

His current research project is on 19th-century adultery novels, including Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Drawing on the fact that the German and Russian terms for adultery are connected to foreignness, he finds that themes of transnationalism, treason, and colonialism run through the novels.

In his free time, Lyon enjoys running and baking, and he is hoping to find the time to do some choral singing in Atlanta. He also loves vacationing in Yellowstone National Park with his family, where he likes to go hiking, fishing, and horseback riding.

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John Lyon began his role as chair of the School of Modern Languages on Aug. 1, 2023.

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Contact For More Information

Stephanie N. Kadel
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts