It’s 8:02 a.m. on a Wednesday morning as Natasha Sim, a master’s student, walks into the Language Resource Center heading to her first class of the day—Advanced Indonesian. I follow her to a room full of round orange chairs and bright white walls with two giant screens at the front of the classroom. Sim turns on the screens, and we can see her fellow classmates and professor in a room almost 200 miles away; it is similar to ours, except for the fact that the wall in the background displays “Cornell” with the university's logo written in carnelian red. Twice a week, via videoconferencing, this is how Sim learns Indonesian.
This early in the morning, the International Affairs Building, which hosts the LRC, is empty and nearly silent as it anticipates the daily bustle of graduate students speaking dozens of languages and undergraduates running to their lectures. Tucked away underground, the center is home to several language classrooms, as well as the administrators who oversee the center’s language, exchange, and distance learning programs.
One screen displays Sim’s professor and three Cornell students while our classroom is shown on another; as soon as class begins, Sim is conversing with her peers in Indonesian, shifting the camera in the corner of the classroom to focus on her. “It takes some getting used to,” Sim says, but the set-up does not feel too different from that of a typical classroom. Sim is at Columbia as part of a one year master’s program in East Asian regional studies within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, through which students can study a regional language in Southeast Asia. Sim studied Indonesian as an undergraduate in Singapore and wanted to continue her studies at Columbia, which was made possible through the LRC’s Shared Course Initiative.
Originally funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the SCI is a collaboration between Columbia, Cornell, and Yale to share several of the universities’ less commonly taught language courses via videoconferencing. Columbia students, for example, can take a Zulu course with a professor at Yale and a Sinhala class with a professor at Cornell, while Cornell and Yale students can take Dutch and Wolof courses taught by Columbia professors. Since the initiative was fully established in 2012, the center has offered more than 20 languages through the SCI with more courses consistently being added.
The LRC provides a hub for professors who may be the only professor in their department teaching their respective language; with the SCI, these professors and their students can connect with their peers across the three universities while adapting their classrooms to move away from the traditional, instructor-centered pedagogy. The range of languages taught in this space draws particular niches of students, some motivated by cultural and familial ties, others by their academic pursuits. By teaching these languages—in an attempt to preserve them, their cultures, and histories—the center is working to change the role of language in academia, taking it from a minor aspect of one’s education to an integral component.
In 1998, Columbia hired center director Stéphane Charitos, a native French speaker and a lecturer in French and Romance philology, to establish the LRC and define its mission.
“The original idea was to see how we could ensure that Columbia continued to offer a robust menu of languages,” Charitos recalls. “The initial idea was to have the LRC oversee the teaching of the less commonly taught languages.”
However, without a set definition of “less commonly taught languages” to determine which languages the center should house and which should belong in academic departments, the mission quickly shifted. The center evolved into an administrative unit, overseeing the instruction of dozens of languages using the center’s space and resources like the SCI and the New York University Exchange, a program where Columbia and NYU students can cross-register for language classes, regardless of whether or not they belonged to a department.
Today, most language instructors are housed in an academic department or program, but come to the LRC to teach classes and be a part of the language-teaching community at Columbia. Some languages, including Punjabi, Indonesian, and Bengali, are not housed in specific departments, so they are based at the center. The center still attempts to be a resource to help instructors think about the role of technology in their curriculums, encourage professional development by creating “a community of intellectual interest around the teaching of second languages,” and meet Columbia’s desire to be a global university by offering an abundance of languages, Charitos tells me.
The idea is that you can learn popular languages, like Spanish or French, basically anywhere—at most higher level institutions, with Duolingo, on a CD in your car—but these less commonly taught languages are almost exclusively taught and studied in this space and through this center, with the benefit of learning these languages in the presence of other students and speakers. According the Modern Language Association’s Language Enrollment Database, between 2009 and 2016, only 26 higher level institutions in the U.S. offered Indonesian and only 21 institutions offered Tibetan.
The languages taught through the SCI—Dutch, Tamil, Hungarian, Twi, Wolof, Sinhala, Ukrainian, and the list goes on with 22 total languages—are often not the first choice for students drawn to the prestige of French and German, and the pure practicality of learning Spanish. But the dozens and dozens of language courses made possible by the center and the SCI can allow a student to learn a bit of Zulu before studying abroad in South Africa or dive deeper into historical archives written in Thai script.
But studying less common languages comes with the unstable, low enrollment—a problem Chris Kaiser, the program manager for the SCI, calls “endemic” to these less commonly taught languages. The SCI came into existence to address this issue. “The moment you can add two, three students to the class, it opens up opportunities for what you can do in the class that perhaps you could not do before when you were in a one-to-one or one-to-two [classroom],” Charitos says.
Before the SCI, the center was what Charitos calls a “traditional language lab” with rows of computers that revolved around a teacher-centered pedagogy, where students could access course materials and exercises digitally. With the implementation of the SCI, not only were new classrooms built, but the mission and identity of the space also changed. Today, the center comprises of four classrooms for videoconferencing, a Collaborative Learning Space lined with computers, and a few other classrooms not designed for the SCI.
“The physical changes in the Language Resource Center that you've seen between 1998 and today are reflective of the changes in theory and pedagogical practice that have occurred,” Kaiser says. Instead of the typical classroom hierarchical pedagogy, the center promotes a teaching method that focuses less on lecturing and more on student collaboration. The SCI allows students to collaborate with peers across space to develop their studies in a less commonly taught language.
As I sit in Advanced Indonesian, the high-definition videoconferencing allows the students and professor across the screen to appear and sound as if they are in the same room as Sim and me. Sim is able to work the remote control in one hand to zoom in on the whiteboard to display her writing exercise for the day in nearly perfect clarity. The dual-screen setup of the conferencing allows professors to view their students at other universities as well as connect their computers to show the day’s lecture notes.
“The administration was adamant that we needed to find the model where the experience of the students would be as similar as possible to an experience that they would have in a face-to-face setting,” Charitos explains. Therefore, with the SCI technology, the center strives to imitate the feeling of “being in the presence of other people,” according to Kaiser.
The first pilot courses for the SCI began in 2011, which included a Romanian course taught by professor Mona Momescu, the only Romanian professor at Columbia. To adapt to teaching across a distance, Momescu says she had to “reconceptualize” her syllabus, materials and activities for the class. “You have to … rewrite [and] produce teaching materials that make sense in that medium,” she explains. This includes lessons and notes that can be shared digitally, with less reliance on physical textbook exercises.
Professors like Momescu who teach through the SCI must not only engage with students across the screen, but also create an environment and teaching method suitable for different kinds of students.
There are typically two types of language learners within the center and the SCI: those who speak the language at home with their families or have familial ties to the language and culture—heritage students—and second language, or “L2,” learners drawn to the language for their own reasons, whether it be academic- or career-focused, or out of personal curiosity. This allows for a unique, yet challenging, dynamic in the classroom and further adaptation of an instructor’s pedagogy.
“Studying a language is something that is deeply personal, deeply emotional, and if you’re a heritage student, you're connecting to your personal identity, to the identity of your community, to your personal history,” Charitos says.
Upstate at Cornell, professor Jolanda Pandin, the instructor for Sim’s Advanced Indonesian class and the sole Indonesian professor at the university, values the draw of both heritage and non-heritage speakers for her advanced class. Unlike Momescu, Pandin didn’t feel the need to adapt her syllabus considering that the nature of advanced language courses are often in a discussion-based format. In this medium, whether in-person or across a screen, heritage students and L2 students can approach the language at a similar level of proficiency, unlike elementary or intermediate classes.
Pandin values the SCI’s ability to allow her students to practice Indonesian with several different speakers. Sim and one other Columbia student enrolled in Pandin’s course comprise of two of the five total students in the class, displaying the immense value that Charitos mentions of adding just two or three students to the language learning environment.
“At the advanced levels, students already need a lot of exposure … [to] different speakers,” Pandin says. “Each student brings their own perspective [and] different academic fields into the discussion, and that's very enriching.”
Kaiser repeatedly emphasizes how much he values this classroom dynamic and pedagogy, claiming that studying less commonly taught languages create a “real sense of unity” in taking on the task of learning a language that you could not learn anywhere else, because the only people who can support you in learning this language are the handful of people on campus—and digitally, at a distance—who are in the same boat as you are.
It’s 12:15 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon and I’m back in the LRC, sitting in one of the center’s four classrooms. I sit with seven students, most of whom are master’s students, in First-Year Modern Tibetan. One student in the course, a professor in East Asian studies from Cornell, is trying his hand at Tibetan—displayed on the big screen in front of us. Students work in pairs to have conversations in Tibetan and are able to read Tibetan script. The professor, Sonam Tsering, tells me his students all started “from scratch” ten weeks ago, at the beginning of the semester. With students of common interests attracted to his courses, Tsering has developed a small community on campus with a niche interest in Tibetan language and culture.
“The Tibetan language itself is facing a challenge to survive in a modern world through globalization … [and] modern technology,” even among native speakers, Tsering says, especially as Chinese language and culture becomes more prominent in the region. Over several years of teaching the language, he has found that students are drawn to the study of this persisting language and culture and its relationship with a changing world.
Tsering joined Columbia’s East Asian department in 2014 and teaches the first three years of Modern Tibetan. Prior to coming to Columbia, he taught Tibetan in London, Paris, and at the University of Michigan where he used distance learning, a program similar to the SCI, to teach students at the Ohio State University.
Jacy Sun, the only undergraduate in the class, is a junior and visiting student from Vassar College studying education and East Asian studies. Since she will be at Columbia for a full year, Sun plans to take Tsering’s Second-Year Modern Tibetan next semester.
“I think learning language is a way to learn a culture,” Sun says. “It gives you a different perspective of looking at the culture, the people, the region.”
Sun, however, understands why there would be a lack of motivation to learn Tibetan, when learning a language like French or Chinese would be more practical and useful. To learn Tibetan, “it really needs your engagement and your love for it,” she says.
Sun maintains her engagement in Tibetan beyond the language classroom, and is concurrently taking a class called Ethnographic Tibet, which gives an anthropological approach to the region. These classes complement each other—studying the language allows Sun to gain a deeper understanding of the culture, and vice versa. Language professors also expand beyond strictly language instruction courses to teach their respective culture. For example, Momescu teaches a course on Romanian culture, taught in English, and Aleksandar Bošković, who teaches Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, also teaches a comparative literature class on the Balkans.
“Languages don't exist in a vacuum,” Charitos explains. “When I'm asked ‘Why don't you offer x language?’ [I say,] because there's nothing else around that language of the university at the current time, so it would be detrimental to just offer language courses to the students that have no other avenue to explore that cultural language.”
It’s 9:27 a.m. on a Friday morning, and while much of Columbia is sleeping in, I’m walking around the LRC. An elementary Czech and an intermediate Zulu class are in progress, and an elementary Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian class will begin soon at 10:10. I look at this semester’s weekly schedule of classes hung on the wall—a cluster of colors filling up every hour of the school day—and think about the dozens of languages spoken in this space every day.
Between Columbia’s numerous departments and programs, and initiatives headed by the LRC, Columbia as a whole offers a total of 57 languages. All Columbia undergraduate colleges except the School of Engineering and Applied Science have a language requirement, while The Atlantic reports that only seven percent of college students nationwide are enrolled in a foreign language course.
“I worry when I see enrollment levels in language instruction in this country that America is cutting itself off from the world more and more or relying on the world knowing our language to come to us,” Charitos says.
According to Pew, most European countries require students to begin studying a foreign language in school between the ages of 6 and 9, and several countries even require the study of a second language. Meanwhile, the United States does not hold a nationwide foreign language requirement at any level of education.
Kaiser notes that even at universities like Columbia, with a commitment to language learning, a language requirement tends to simply feel like that—a requirement.
“There's this idea that, all right, get the language requirement out of the way. Just get it done. Just check the box,” Kaiser says. “You’re losing such an incredible opportunity by doing that.”
The LRC works to promote the idea that languages can and should be an inherent part of not only one’s academic experience, but of their life. And with the SCI, there is a greater opportunity to students to study a less commonly studied language that they are interested in or have a personal connection to, and study that language for some or most of their time at Columbia.
“[There is] the challenge of changing the culture around language learning and informing students about not just the opportunity of taking the language in the first place, but the benefits of taking the language,” Kaiser concludes. ”You transcend the self and … open a second eye into the world. Suddenly, you see the world in stereo when before you only saw it in two dimensions.”
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