An Oasis for Learning the World’s Languages

By Bruce Lilly

At a time when some major public universities are cutting foreign language programs, IU’s language programs are flourishing.

The basic numbers are striking, by any standard:

  • The College of Arts and Sciences offers instruction in 82 languages.
  • Well over half of these are offered with a consistent 4-semester sequence that satisfies the undergraduate foreign language requirement.
  • When undergraduates ponder their selection for the degree requirement, they have four dozen languages from which to choose.
  • The range of choice is still remarkably broad at the graduate level, with masters and doctorates being offered in 21 foreign languages.
  • Summer languages programs in Urdu, Swahili, Hindi, and Slavic and East European languages are going stronger than ever
Cover image

Front row, left to right: Prof. Alwiya Omar, director of the Swahili Flagship; Prof. Jennifer Liu, director of Chinese Language Pedagogy and the Chinese Flagship; Karlie Jo Query, sophomore from Columbus, IN, earning a BA in Psychology with minors in Swahili and Communication and Culture, and a certificate in Journalism. Karlie says, “I wanted to join the Peace Corps.  They ask for three languages, French, Spanish and Swahili.”

Back row, left to right: Jedidiah Anderson, a first-year PhD student from Fairbanks, AK, has had 8 years of Arabic language study and spent some time as an Arabic linguist with the US Army in Iraq.  He hopes to become a professor; Patrick Johndro, a junior from Ft. Worth, TX, is earning a BA in Chinese.  After finishing his studies at IU, he hopes to move to China and become a novelist; Prof. Nazif Shahrani, chair of the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department.

Photo by Zach Hetrick

Look beyond the basic numbers and you become even more impressed with the breadth and depth of language programs. Interest in Arabic has risen substantially since 9/11 according to Nazif Shahrani, professor of anthropology and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Increased funding has allowed IU to meet the demand.

“The 9/11 attack was a wake-up call about our lack of proficiency in many critical foreign languages,” Shahrani says. “In the post 9/11 environment the federal government has been willing to spend much more money on supporting language programs.”  IU has been at the forefront of these efforts; experts from the Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region (CeLCAR) has provided the intensive training over the past two years for Indiana National Guard units helping to rebuild Afghanistan's agricultural sector and for Provincial Reconstruction Teams out of Fort Bragg, N.C. The training includes basic instruction in Pashto and Dari, two primary languages spoken in Afghanistan, and in matters of cultural norms and sensitivity.

In the fall of 2000, 15 students enrolled in second-year Arabic; by last fall the number had jumped to 56. Arabic is also one of the 22 languages taught through SWSEEL (Summer Workshop in Slavic, East European and Central Asian Languages). The sessions this summer include instruction through the 6th-year level in Russian and the 3rd-year level in Arabic.  Recently established Language Flagship Centers in Chinese and Swahili are training undergraduates to reach a professional level of proficiency by the time they graduate.

And don’t let a wide variety of exotic languages from every part of the globe distract you from the fact that French and Spanish are still going strong here. These two stalwart languages accounted for 147 majors and 415 minors last year, along with 23 graduate degrees. The simple truth is that in the world of language study, IU covers the map and ranks with the best.

How did a Midwestern public university rise to such a position of prominence? As with many of IU’s success stories, Herman B Wells deserves credit for setting things in motion. Foreign language instruction must be seen within the larger context of international studies, an area championed by Wells during his long tenure at IU. During World War II, IU established programs in East European languages and cultures, and Wells ensured that these programs continued after the war ended. Subsequent administrations have followed in that path, aided by federal Title VI grants, one of the US government’s primary ways of supporting language study in higher education. Title VI grants awarded to IU by the U.S. Department of Education totaled $16 million in 2006 and $17.6 million in 2010.

Patrick O'Meara

Patrick O'Meara, IU vice president for International Affairs

“Title VI funding has been tremendously vital,” says Patrick O’Meara, IU vice president for International Affairs. “These grants are highly competitive and IU is in the top tier. Very few schools are granted as much money for Title VI work as IU.” O’Meara points out that the ability to win these awards comes from the fact that IU has a long tradition of supporting international programs. “International Studies has become part of the fabric of IU,” he says.

In an era of massive change in the ways that public higher education is funded and the harsh reality is that state universities are facing severe budget cuts. Even though language programs at some institutions have suffered, IU continues to expand upon its reputation as a leader in this field. As the world around us becomes ever more interdependent, the value and impact of IU’s language programs become even more distinctly pronounced.

“We need the ability to understand other cultures and societies,” says O’Meara. “And you can’t do that without learning the languages.”

The Flagships: Chinese, Swahili

Swahili Flagship

The Language Flagship, a component of the National Security Education Program (NSEP) at the U.S Department of Defense, supports language programs that bring participants to a superior level of proficiency. In 2008 IU received a $1 million grant to establish the Chinese Flagship and in 2010 another grant of $600,000 was awarded to establish the Swahili Flagship. Also in 2010, an additional $560,000 was awarded to make IU the sole location for the Language Flagship’s graduate-level activities in Chinese.

Chinese Flagship“The idea is to combine language education with professional training,” says Jennifer Liu, professor of East Asian Languages and Culture and director of the Center for Chinese Language Pedagogy. “Undergraduates can reach a superior level of fluency that enables them to work in the domain of their professional interest upon completing their undergraduate degrees.” By combining fall and spring semester classes with summer intensive language study either at IU or abroad, students can complete five years of Chinese by the end of their junior year. Then during their senior year, students go abroad for direct enrollment in a Chinese university and an internship.

Dual course offerings combine language education and professional training. The program teaches courses in Chinese that complement courses in other departments. Students enroll in and get credit for both courses. For the course taught in Chinese, students must write a research paper of at least 4,000 characters, make a presentation to Chinese university faculty via video conference, and participate in a question-and-answer session with the faculty after presenting the paper. Flagship students are provided with mentors who are native speakers of Chinese and who are pursuing graduate work in the student’s field of study.

The Swahili Flagship award was announced in December, so the program is just getting started. Alwiya Omar, clinical associate professor of Linguistics, is director of the program. The Swahili Flagship will offer students opportunities very similar to those offered by the Chinese Flagship, including accelerated language instruction, assistance from mentors, and the indispensable component of extended time abroad.

“Flagship students will get the opportunity to spend a summer and academic year at State University of Zanzibar in Tanzania,” says Omar. “There Flagship students will take the equivalent of the 4th-year of language study, enroll in classes offered in Swahili, and participate in an internship linked to their academic disciplines. For immersion in the language, students will stay with host families and be provided with conversation partners and tutors.”

Is French Still Relevant?
Mais oui! Bien sûr!

Going back who-knows-how-many years, the two foreign languages most commonly taught in American high schools and colleges have been French and Spanish. But is that still the case? With the emergence of China and Japan as economic heavyweights, the popularity of Chinese and Japanese in many high schools has risen dramatically. And with the steadily growing proportion of Hispanic citizens in the United States, Spanish is front and center.

But what about French? Although this is a language that has, at times in the past, been one of the most dominant international languages of the globe and once reigned as the language of diplomacy for the Western world, its prominence has receded. Does it still hold a position of importance today?

Jack McCord

Jack McCord (BA, '76)
executive director of Alliance Française de Chicago

Put the question to Jack McCord (BA, ’76), executive director of Alliance Française de Chicago, and he wonders why anyone would need to ask. “There are over 200 million people in the world who speak French,” he says, “and it is the official or working language in 32 countries. Take a glance at the globe and notice the places where French is spoken. Start in Quebec, go across Europe into parts of the Middle East, continue through North Africa, wind back through the Caribbean, and don’t forget to end up in New Orleans.”

McCord is just getting warmed up. To further dispel any notion that French is declining as a world language, he trots out these facts: French retains its position as one of the two most taught foreign languages in the U.S. today, it is the third most commonly-used language on the Web, and it is the only language other than English that is taught in nearly every country on the map.

He then launches into a long list of reasons that French should be taught in this country. For one, learning French is the key to fully accessing the depth of France’s great works of philosophy and literature. Here’s another—American history is inextricably linked to French-speaking people who settled here. Hoosiers need look no further than the cities of Vincennes and Terre Haute for examples. In fact, the first fortified European settlement in what is now Indiana was Fort Ouiatenon, which was established in1717 at a site five miles southwest of where Lafayette is today.

If nothing else, French is fun. It’s viewed by people all over the world as one of the most beautiful-sounding languages. It’s a language of romance, of gourmet food and wine, of the pleasures of this world. With all of these reasons and more, indeed, should anyone wonder if French is still relevant? Pas du tout!

Want to learn Pashto? There's an app for that!

Language specialists in the College have developed a new application for the iPad that will help people working in strategic areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to read and write in Pashto, one of the region's primary languages.

The new tool was developed at the IU Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region (CeLCAR), with Title VI funds from the U.S. Department of Education and the support from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Pashto Script TutorialSoon, anyone with an iPad can download a free interactive tutorial for the Pashto script. It will be officially available for download from the Apple App Store in early May.

Pashto is the native language of the indigenous Pashtun people who are found primarily in the area between the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan and the Indus River in Pakistan.

Christopher Atwood, chair of IU Department of Central Eurasian Studies and interim director of CeLCAR, said that although the new app is available to everyone, it will particularly help people in government, the military; non-profits and academia "better understand a language in this crucial part of the world.

"Americans are finding themselves thrown into contact with Pashtuns and the Pashto language without having the time for much formal classroom experience," Atwood added. "Portable tools like this will help them make the most of any formal instruction they get and help them continue to learn and solidify what they know in the field. When technology is more mobile, it can be used more quickly and applied directly in situations where it's needed.

"While you may need to reach a very high level to become an interpreter or translator, every little bit you learn of a foreign language helps you to understand the people you're dealing with and to show that you're making that effort. The value that tools like this can make in avoiding simple misunderstandings is invaluable."

Sukhrob Karimov, an information and communication technology specialist at CeLCAR, has been working on the interactive tutorial app since February.

"This tool provides an interactive opportunity to learn Pashto Script, allowing the learner to start to read and write in a shorter period of time. It is designed to help those interested in Pashto to be comfortable with one of the most complicated Arabic scripts," Karimov explained.

One of the biggest challenges was to develop an application that would not require 3G or a Wi-Fi connection.

"Due to the fact that the application has an authentic video recording for each of the 44 letters of the Pashto Alphabet, the size of the overall app was increased to 30mb," Karimov said. "On the other hand, it can be used literally anywhere - on the bus, in an airport or perhaps in a rural village of Afghanistan."

The application was developed specifically as a supplemental tool to CeLCAR's Pashto Elementary Textbook. All of the interactive activities are designed to help beginning Pashto learners start reading and writing in Pashto more quickly and easily than traditional teaching methods alone.

Users will find that the app teaches the proper pronunciation of each letter of the Pashto alphabet, gives them a range of opportunities to practice reading and writing and trains them to recognize the various shapes of the letters in their context. Video recordings teach various forms of Pashto letters. It also contains features which tests users' listening and comprehension skills.

Atwood said the Pashto Script tutorial not only has received high marks from students currently studying the language at IU Bloomington, but also from native speakers and experienced language instructors.

Its presentation at the 2011 National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages conference in Madison, Wis., led to an initiative to establish a national support group for language learning technology for similar projects elsewhere.

In addition to the iPad app, the center is offering several smartphone applications, which are available on the Android Market and will be available soon through Apple App Market.

The center also will soon release a Pashto Alphabet app for Blackberry's new Playbook tablet. It won a Research in Motion App World Award from the Adobe Community Team.

For downloadable alphabet charts, language pamphlets and other materials from CelCAR, go to this web site: http://www.indiana.edu/~celcar/language_informational_materials.html.”