Claire Li/Sun Assistant Photo Editor

A student studying in a room used for language studies in Rockefeller Hall on Feb. 5.

February 7, 2023

Niche Language Courses Bring Cultures from Around the Globe to Classrooms

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There are nearly 7,100 languages spoken in the world today — more than 50 of which are offered as courses at Cornell. Most Cornellians are familiar with “au revoir” and “adiós” from standard romance language offerings. But they can also learn to say “hamba kahle” and “paalam” in less commonly taught languages like Zulu and Tagalog, respectively. 

Punjabi, Zulu and Indonesian — which are not typically part of university-level language curricula — are some also taught at Cornell through the Shared Course Initiative. Two other Ivy-League schools, Columbia University and Yale University, also participate in the program.

The SCI allows more languages to be taught at Cornell through synchronous face-to-face online classes. Students from each of their respective universities learn from their on-campus language resource centers while professors teach from their offices.    

“Each of the three partner institutions has specific strengths…for Cornell, that’s Southeast Asia and South Asia, so most of the languages that students at Columbia and Yale receive [from Cornell] fall within that area,” said Angelika Kraemer, director of the Language Resource Center. “Similarly, the other two institutions have different strengths — Yale, for example — in African languages.”  

In total, 200 students, 65 of which hail from Cornell, are taking remote classes through the program this semester. Each student is required to accommodate differences in their schedules to fit a single academic calendar.

The SCI aims to bring together unique cultures, share resources across institutional boundaries and promote global engagement. Students can explore the SCI and contact the Cornell Language Resource Center if they wish to enroll next semester.

“The SCI is dedicated to advancing the creation of communal spaces,” the SCI website states, “where students can pursue the fruitful exploration of knowledge and engage in critical dialogues with both teachers and peers.” 

Cornell’s student body represents a melting pot of cultures across the world, with students hailing from all 50 states and 120 nations. Some students have taken advantage of the University’s resources to learn the language associated with their cultural heritage.

This semester, Karen Sabile ’26 is enrolled in Tagalog 1122: Elementary Tagalog-Filipino II. She is grateful to connect with her family members and Filipino culture on a deeper level. 

“When [my family] traveled to the Philippines, I was unable to understand conversations between my relatives, and I couldn’t even hold my own with the ones who weren’t too familiar with English,” Sabile wrote in an email to The Sun. “I hope that by studying Tagalog over the course of my college years, I will finally be able to communicate with my parents and extended family in the language of their homeland.”

Each language curriculum is unique, with professors incorporating elements of the traditions and customs associated with each language. Sabile said she enjoys simulating real-world scenarios in class. 

“We often practice dialogues such as shopping at a wet market in the Philippines, renting an apartment, purchasing a bus ticket and asking for or giving directions,” Sabile wrote.

Tagalog is just one example of a less commonly-taught language at Cornell that fosters a community of those with a common heritage. 

“I think Tagalog is such a beautifully euphonious language,” Sabile wrote. “I am sure that all the material I have learned thus far and will continue to learn over the next few months will be useful to me the next time my family and I visit the Philippines.”

Sabile believes her professor is filled with passion for teaching Tagalog. Other language professors are equally as passionate, such as Prof. Todd Clary, classics, who teaches Classics 1332: Elementary Sanskrit II, which he also studied in college.

“I was an English major as an undergraduate, and I remember how I read English translations of many ancient texts in the standard curriculum and became dissatisfied with studying them in translation,” Clary wrote in an email to The Sun. “I learned to read Ancient Greek, and continued to learn ancient languages as a graduate student: first Latin, then Sanskrit.”

Similar to Tagalog, the Sanskrit curriculum and learning outcomes are different from common languages taught in the United States, like Spanish.  

“Sanskrit is written in a script called Devanāgarī, which is new to most students, so we spend the first week or so of the class learning to read and write the unfamiliar script,” Clary wrote. “Learning Sanskrit requires learning of new linguistic methods and enables students to look at language itself in a more theoretical and abstract way.”

Clary’s passion for languages and classic literature inspired him to teach Sanskrit at Cornell.

“The primary thing that makes Sanskrit interesting to me is the vast array of amazing texts and stories one can directly connect with by learning to read them in their language, rather than relying on translators as intermediaries,” Clary wrote.