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February 21, 2002

LEARNING LANGUAGES: Need to know Hindi? Serbian? ASL?

Ungependa kujitundisha kuongea Kiswahili?

Because if you do — that is, if you want to learn to speak Swahili — the place to do it at Pitt is the Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL) Center.

The center, part of the linguistics department, offers courses in Swahili and 15 other foreign languages not available through Pitt's other language departments.

"Less commonly taught" should not be mis-translated as "less commonly spoken," says the LCTL Center's acting director, Dawn McCormick. While some languages taught through the center are spoken by fewer than a million people, primarily in a single country (Welsh, for example), others such as Swahili and Arabic are spoken by tens of millions worldwide.

For a variety of reasons — pedagogic tradition, ethnic backgrounds of students and teachers, job opportunities following graduation — foreign language instruction in the United States remains Eurocentric, despite increased study of Chinese and Japanese at some schools.

So, for example, German (spoken by 100 million people worldwide, according to the World Almanac 2002) is commonly taught in this country, from elementary schools to universities. Whereas, Hindi (with 300 million speakers, the great majority of them in India) is rarely offered in U.S. public schools. Pitt teaches Hindi through the LCTL Center.

Thanks to Pitt's strong area studies units, some languages that would be on the linguistic fringe at other universities are offered here in the degree programs of academic departments. Slovak, for example, is taught here by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Serbian, however, is taught through the LCTL Center.

Another departmental divide separates teaching of ancient tongues from modern ones at Pitt: The classics department teaches Sanskrit and ancient Greek, but modern Indian languages (Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil) and Greek are offered through the LCTL Center.

The center's most popular course isn't "spoken" at all. About 170 of the 300 students enrolled in the center's spring term courses are studying American Sign Language (ASL), the center's only North American offering.

"The majority of my students are either looking to become teachers of the deaf or speech pathologists, or they see ASL as the best option to fulfill their undergraduate foreign language requirement," says ASL instructor Robin Schmidlin, a 1983 College of Arts and Sciences graduate who began studying American Sign Language through the LCTL Center.

"Some of my students have had family members and friends who were deaf," Schmidlin adds. "We've had students who have completely changed their career paths after taking their first sign class. It introduced them to the deaf community and opened up a whole new culture to them."

The LCTL Center offers courses for as few as five students, occasionally even fewer, with peak enrollments of 20 per section. This term, Schmidlin alone is teaching 32 students in two sections of ASL. All are American-born, hearing students, but Schmidlin says deaf students sometimes enroll.

"Our students are motivated by any number of factors," says LCTL Center acting director McCormick. "Some just want to fulfill the CAS foreign language requirement by taking something other than the usual Spanish, French or German. Others are what we call 'heritage learners,' students who want to learn a language because their parents or grandparents speak it, or to otherwise connect to their ethnic heritage."

Clayton Wukich, a graduate student in Pitt's history department, is studying Serbian for personal as well as academic reasons: His grandfather is from the former Yugoslavia, and Wukich himself wants eventually to earn a doctorate and teach Eastern European studies.

Wukich studied Slovak in preparation for an internship in Bratislava; he's also studied Russian, French and Spanish. "Of all the languages I've taken, I've retained the most in the least amount of time studying Serbian," Wukich says. He attributes this to small class sizes (he's one of only a half-dozen students in his Serbian 4 course) and excellent instruction. "I probably have more personal motivation, too, because of my family background," he says.

Like Wukich, Angela Sanders is studying a less-commonly-taught language — Swahili — both for practical reasons and because it fascinates her.

A junior majoring in English writing, Sanders is taking Swahili 2 this term. She plans to earn a teaching certificate in English as a Second Language, then travel and teach in East Africa following graduate school.

"Structurally, Swahili is more interesting to me than the other languages I've studied," says Sanders, who also studies Spanish at Pitt; she took German in high school. "Swahili is complicated in ways I'm not used to, and simpler in other ways. For example, nouns have no gender in Swahili, unlike in Spanish and German."

Sanders' Swahili instructor, Leonora A. Kivuva, says most of her students have visited Africa or hope to do so eventually, to pursue careers or for personal enrichment. Kivuva, a native of Kenya, taught 40 students in Swahili 1 last fall, many of them graduating seniors. This term, her Swahili 2 course has 12 students.

Swahili, with 50 million speakers, is the most commonly spoken African language and the only sub-Saharan African language currently offered at Pitt, although the LCTL Center sometimes offers Yoruba. Surprisingly, perhaps — given the University's increasing black student enrollments and the potential for heritage learners in the local African-American community — only four of Kivuva's current students are African-Americans. "Generally, most of my students are not African-American," Kivuva says. "I'm not sure why. Maybe it is because they have fewer opportunities to travel to Africa."

Among colleges and universities nationwide, Arabic is the fastest-growing less-commonly-taught language, a trend attributed to heightened academic interest in Islam and the Middle East in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Because of the sequence in which Pitt offers Arabic courses, it's too early to tell if the demand for Arabic will increase here, McCormick points out.

During spring terms, the LCTL Center offers one section each of Arabic 2 and Arabic 4. Students currently enrolled in those classes were already studying Arabic before Sept. 11. The center teaches one section each of Arabic 1 and 3 in the fall.

"When we see how many students want to take Arabic 1 next fall, then we'll know if there is increased interest as a result of Sept. 11," McCormick says. "If the demand is there, we could add sections of Arabic 1 for next fall."

LCTL Center courses are listed under "Linguistics" in the course descriptions catalogue for the arts and sciences and College of General Studies. The center, headquartered in the linguistics department at 2816 Cathedral of Learning, encourages students to request additional courses and sections.

— Bruce Steele


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