Uncommon languages at the College find new spaces

March 2, 2016 by Rachel Levin, Features Editor

Alice Obas ’19 (center) and Isabel Hanson ’16 (left) created a Haitian Creole language table where students can speak together. Emory Strawn/Photo Editor.

Alice Obas ’19 (center) and Isabel Hanson ’16 (left) created a Haitian Creole language table where students can speak together. Emory Strawn/Photo Editor.

Our classes, books and conversations all tend to have one thing in common: They’re in English. The biggest exceptions to this are the College’s language classes, such as French, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic, Italian, Chinese and Japanese, and Critical Language classes, such as Hebrew, Hindi and Korean. But students at the College come from many different places and speak a wide variety of languages. What opportunities are there for those students who speak languages that are uncommon or rarely spoken at the College?

Alice Obas ’19 is from Haiti and speaks Haitian Creole. Together with Isabel Hanson ’16, she was able to speak the language for a little bit at the Haitian Creole language event on Wednesday night in Paresky Center.

“This is probably the first opportunity I’ve really had [to speak Creole at the College]. I’ve met some other Haitians here, and it’s kind of cool to just throw some words around,” she said of the event.

“There aren’t that many opportunities here, [but] there are more speakers [at the College] than you’d expect, so we’re trying to get more of a community around it,” Hanson said.

She is not a native of Haiti, but she learned Creole when she went in summer 2010 and has kept up with it since.

“Everyone associates French with Haiti, and you would think that in addition to Creole everyone [in Haiti] speaks French. But really I think only 10 percent of the population is bilingual in French and Creole. So you go down to Haiti and everyone speak Creole – that’s the language that’s connected to the formation of history, the formation of Creole, and it’s all very important,” she said.

Assistant Professor of History Aparna Kapadia and Assistant Professor of Sociology Joel Lee also speak less frequently heard languages at the College: Hindi and Urdu.

“I am not a native speaker [of either language]. I learned Hindi and Urdu in the seven years I lived and worked in India,” Lee said. “There are [actually] quite a few speakers [at the College] among the students and learners at various levels … Actually you already know some vocabulary – veranda, guru, loot, cummerbund, thug, jungle and yoga [are Hindi]. Plus, with Urdu and Hindi, you get two for the price of one: grammar and syntax are basically identical. Vocabulary is largely shared. Only the scripts are really different.”

Kapadia is a native speaker of Hindi and believes that Hindi and Urdu are important pieces of South Asia.

“While the subcontinent is home to numerous other languages, I think it’s important to make a start by introducing at least these two at the College,” Kapadia said.

Together with Professor Lee, she is starting a Hindi/Urdu language table to encourage both native speakers and those who are learning the language to converse.

“These languages have a rich and complex cultural heritage and it would be great if international, heritage and otherwise interested students who speak these languages could maintain their knowledge through such forums that bring them together,” Kapadia said.

Jane Canova is the administrative director of the Center for Foreign Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the College. “The [Critical Languages Department] has existed to offer students the possibility of studying less commonly taught languages with the goal of complementing their area studies, meeting their linguistic interests or preparing for their study abroad in the areas of the world where the languages are spoken,” Canova said. “Many times there is also a personal connection to the language and culture.”

This department is available to students that want to retain that connection through taking courses in thesekinds of languages.

Currently, students can take classes in Hebrew, Hindi and Korean through the department. That list may soon expand.

“I’m working on a proposal for collaboration with similar institutions to expand the Critical Languages offered, possibly in Portuguese and Persian,” Canova said.

“The language tables can sometimes fulfill the need for the opportunity to speak in another language,” Canova said of languages not offered but still spoken by various students at the College. “At students’ initiative we’ve sponsored Greek, Swahili, Italian and Brazilian Portuguese tables. The Persian language table began two years ago at the initiative of Ava Atri [’17].”

Students who speak languages rarely heard at the College are excited about these kinds of efforts. Even with the new initiatives to provide spaces for more languages at the College, speaking both English and another language can pose a challenge.

“It is kind of hard switching [from Creole to English], but it’s okay,” Obas said. “It’s okay, it’s just kind of a thing that you have to assimilate to. It’s kind of like the classic immigration story, where you have to kind of give up part of who you are and how you used to be to become this new person in terms of an American.”

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