Your favorite undergraduate literary magazine The Blue and White will be having our weekly meeting tonight at 9pm in the crypt of St. Paul’s Chapel. We’ll be finalizing content for the December issue, so come to pitch or pick up a piece. To get you excited about the new issue, on campus this week, here’s a feature by senior editor Naomi Sharp about a new program at Columbia, Cornell, and Yale to offer less commonly taught languages (such as Tamil, Yoruba, Khmer, etc).
Illustration by Anne Scotti
There are twelve students in Professor Adeolu Ademoyo’s Intermediate Yoruba class, but anyone who glanced inside the room would only see two. The other seven—and Professor Ademoyo—are 200 miles away in Ithaca, New York.
Columbia doesn’t offer Yoruba, a Niger-Congo language used mainly in West Africa and rarely taught in the United States. But Cornell does, and Yoruba is one of the ten languages in the Shared Course Initiative— a collaboration between Columbia, Cornell, and Yale to pool their resources and let students take less commonly taught languages (LCTLs) through videoconferencing.
About 91% of students in the U.S. who study a language other than English choose French, German, Italian, or Spanish, according to the National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages. The remaining tongues are considered LCTLs—the languages that most people in the world speak, and nine percent of Americans studying languages learn.
Some LCTLs, like Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, have a strong following at top-ranked universities like Columbia. It is, of course, no coincidence that these languages are spoken in countries with fast-growing economies that are emerging as world powers. Students tend to study languages they believe will give them a professional advantage.
Low enrollment is the main reason that it’s rare to find a university teaching Tamil, Yoruba, or Khmer: a class must have a certain number of students to be worth the expense of a faculty instructor. “The universities in general don’t support [LTCL] classes,” says Professor Paul Hackett, who teaches Classical Tibetan at Columbia to an SCI class of both Columbia and Yale students. “They’re just not financially viable. You run them at a loss.”
“Unless,” he adds, “you have a very beneficent university that likes to indulge money-losing but culturally valuable things.”