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

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.”

Unsurprisingly, then, the SCI is not receiving funding from Columbia. Financial support from the university became even less likely after cuts during fiscal year 2010-11 in Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which helped fund LCTL education.  Stéphane Charitos, the director of Columbia’s Language Resource Center, approached Cornell and Yale with the idea of the SCI and the program received a five-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Columbia “has cautiously agreed to allow this initiative to take place,” says Bill Koulopoulos, the Senior Project Manager of distance learning at the LRC.

This is year two. The program began in Fall 2012 after a successful pilot that included three languages. This semester, Columbia offers Elementary Classical Tibetan, Elementary Ukrainian, Elementary and Intermediate Romanian, Elementary and Intermediate Tamil, and Advanced Dutch to students participating through videoconferencing at Cornell and Yale. Columbia students are taking SCI classes offered at Cornell in Elementary and Intermediate Yoruba. Two other SCI languages—Advanced Indonesian and Advanced Zulu—do not currently have Columbia participants, and Cornell’s Bengali and Khmer courses include students from Yale, but are not yet offered at Columbia.

Only two rooms at Columbia are equipped to host SCI classes. Both are in the Language Resource Center, which itself is located in the nightmarish maze of the International Affairs Building. (When I scheduled an interview with Bill Koulopoulos, he helpfully sent me a 2-minute YouTube video entitled “How to Get to the LRC”.)

Room 352 has one blue wall and hefty, bright orange swivel chairs with cup holders.

On the wall at the front of the room are two large high-resolution screens with a video camera between them. The left screen functions like a projector in a traditional classroom, displaying PowerPoints and other teaching materials. The right screen is split in two: half shows the Columbia students as captured by the camera, and the other half shows their classmates at Cornell or Yale. Their classrooms have the same equipment as Columbia’s, though not as nice a color scheme.

In Professor Hackett’s 11 a.m. Classical Tibetan class on Monday morning, the four Yale students on the screen give a friendly wave to their digital classmates. They set their backpacks down and pull out notebooks and binders. A member of Yale’s language department is there to pass out the weekly quiz, which Professor Hackett has emailed to her, and collect it to scan and email back to him.

“This is not online language learning,” says Koulopoulos, referring to another trend in distance education. An SCI classroom emulates a traditional one, so SCI students can’t take their classes wearing pajama pants as they eat a bowl of cereal in bed. They’re expected to show up to class and participate—to do everything as normally as possible.

“I find this exactly the same as a normal classroom,” says Vincent Dinescu, GS ’14, who has studied Romanian with Columbia’s Professor Mona Momescu since the beginning of the program in 2012. Tolu Obikunle, CC ’16, agrees. “I was kind of sketched out about being videotaped,” admits Tolu, an Elementary Yoruba student. “I didn’t expect it to be so similar to a regular class.”

Mate Rigo, a fifth year PhD candidate in East-Central European History at Cornell, is taking Romanian with Professor Momescu after seeing a poster about the class on campus. “I thought there is no such course at Cornell, so I was not even looking,” he says. “I would say it’s almost as good as having a teacher here.”

Not everything functions smoothly. In Professor Hackett’s class, one of the screens briefly goes out on the Yale end, and he has to fiddle with the volume in order to hear his Yale students more clearly. There is also a physical awkwardness to videoconferencing in a classroom that professors can mitigate but not solve; the students in the room are opposite the students onscreen, so a professor can’t look at both of them at once. For a first-time observer, it is a little strange to watch a professor lecturing students with his head turned away from them.

But both students and professors have gotten used to the setup, though some professors were initially apprehensive. Professor de Groot teaches Advanced Dutch at Columbia with students from Cornell. The environment is “much more sterile” than her small former classroom in Deutsches Haus, where students sit around a table and are sometimes served tea. Now, one of her six Advanced Dutch students is at Cornell.

“If I were in her position, I could understand if she felt that she’s not completely part of this classroom, because the other students are not physically around her,” says Professor de Groot. However, she says that she enjoys the challenge of the new program, and has seen it succeed in her class. She is also conscious of its demands compared to a traditional classroom: “You have to work harder sometimes as an instructor to make sure it’s just as good.”

Koulopoulos, who runs trainings for Columbia’s SCI teachers, agreed: “It’s very important for instructors to kind of re-conceptualize the way they teach,” he says. Professor Momescu explains that when she began teaching the Romanian courses, “I agreed to practically rewrite my teaching materials” to accommodate the videoconferencing system.

Despite positive responses from both professors and students, the reality remains that very few Columbia students are studying in SCI classrooms. Each class is capped at 12 students, but the numbers are sometimes much lower. Several classes only have one or two participants from Columbia. Some classes have none.

“The hope for the SCI is that languages taught using this methodology can be nurtured and incubated so that local enrollments can be grown and stabilized at levels that would necessitate looking for a permanent instructor to be located locally,” said Stéphane Charitos, the director of the LRC, through email. “But the road is long towards that goal.”

“It all stems from the needs that students have,” adds Koulopoulos. “If no one wants to take Advanced Zulu, it doesn’t matter that you offer it.” And it does seem that no one wants to take Advanced Zulu—at least not this semester. Professor Sandra Sanneh’s SCI class, based at Yale, has no Columbia students.

Until the program gets more publicity at Columbia, there’s no way to know to what extent enrollment is low because students just aren’t interested in taking these LCTLs.  SCI Professors and students referred to their languages as “niche” interests, which is true—most  American students will gravitate toward Romance languages that are phonetically similar to English, their own heritage languages, or at least languages of power that they find economically and politically relevant.

But Columbia students pursuing international relations, economics, human rights, and global development, among other fields, do have a reason to learn LCTLs . They will likely spend time in places where LCTLs are spoken, and while learning the language is not a necessity—as Columbia’s own Global Centers illustrate, English-speakers still have the reassuring privilege that they will be able to communicate most everywhere they go—it is smart. Learning someone’s native language, besides being the most accurate way to communicate with them, is a sign of respect and of reciprocation. It is literally cultural literacy.

Illustration by Anne Scotti

Illustration by Anne Scotti

In most LCTL classes, says Professor Hackett, “you tend to have three groups of people: people who are taking it out of personal interest, people who are taking it out of professional interest, and cultural legacy students.” Students taking Classical Tibetan, which is used in traditional Buddhist philosophical texts, usually fall within the first two categories. Anudari Letian, CC ’15, is taking the course “for fun,” she says, and to better understand Buddhism in Mongolia, her home country. Learning the language has limited practicality; in class, Professor Hackett uses a PowerPoint slide to show the grammatical difference between phrases such as “All phenomena are impermanent” and “All impermanent things are phenomena.”

For heritage speakers of LCTLs, these classes are more than an academic opportunity. “You’re learning a history which has been lost to you,” says Dayo Osuntokun, CC ’15, a student in Intermediate Yoruba. The chance to reclaim that history doesn’t come along often for people who speak an LTCL.

“I tried to learn Yoruba online and the first website I came across, it didn’t even have the right alphabet,” says Tolu. In contrast with its plethora of videos, grammar guides, and student texts for Romance and other commonly taught languages, the Internet is a limited resource for LCTLs. When Tolu learned about the SCI Yoruba class from a friend at Columbia, she stopped taking Spanish and enrolled. “To me, this is the last opportunity to try and learn it,” she says.

Dayo sees another, broader reason for heritage speakers to study LCTLs. “This is really important from a language preservation viewpoint,” she says. Yoruba is a shrinking language—both in the number of people who speak it, and in the language’s vocabulary itself. “If we have a language you can’t even write in Microsoft Word, you have a problem,” says Dayo. “Learning your language, you can argue that it’s an act of power in the diaspora.”

Both Tolu and Dayo take Yoruba with Professor Ademoyo from Cornell. In Dayo’s Intermediate class, Professor Ademoyo conducts the lessons entirely in Yoruba. A few times, he pushes a button on the videoconferencing system to give the Columbia students a view of the whiteboard, and writes down a word or phrase: Itan – short story; Iriri – experience. The students can change the camera viewpoint back if they want to, he says. They can also zoom in or shift the angle of the camera to get a different perspective of the Cornell classroom. He encourages them to do it. “The students should own the technology,” he says. “They shouldn’t be alienated from it.”

On the day I talked to Tolu, Professor Ademoyo was visiting Columbia. The SCI pays the travel expenses for professors to meet their students at the partner schools. That day, Professor Ademoyo taught both his Elementary and Intermediate Yoruba classes from Columbia while his Cornell students participated through video-conferencing. He spent the rest of the day holding office hours in the LRC.

It was the first time he was meeting his Columbia students in person. “For the students seeing me for the first time, they jumped,” he says, smiling.

This year, he’s teaching both SCI and non-SCI Yoruba classes. He challenges the assumption that a face-to-face classroom is superior to a videoconferencing one. “I find my hybrid class of a higher quality than a traditional class,” he says—he gets better questions and deeper engagement from his videoconferencing course.

“It’s my favorite mode of teaching now, over a traditional class,” he continues. “And I find that because of the responses I get from students, not what I want to do.”

This year, the SCI will ask the Mellon Foundation to extend its grant for three more years. If Mellon approves the grant, the program will expand to include more languages— Columbia is interested in the Khmer and Sinhala programs at Cornell, says Charitos. Koulopoulos adds that Yale has asked Columbia to teach Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian. With an eye toward expanding the program to other schools, the SCI will also pilot a Modern Greek course between Cornell and Brown University.

Like Professor Ademoyo, teachers and LRC faculty behind the Shared Course Initiative call videoconferencing a “hybrid”—part traditional classroom, part online classroom. Many of them say that this hybrid is the future of language learning.

“Probably it’s the only way of distance teaching that does not give up the human presence in real time,” says Professor Momescu. “I would say in fewer words that it’s less lonely.”