Program offers rare languages

Tok Pisin, Kinyarwanda, Oromo.

To offer Yale students instruction in these and other esoteric languages, Directed Independent Language Study Director Maria Kosinski must first find someone in the New Haven area who speakes the language himself. Sometimes, this task is like throwing a pebble in the sea — she never knows where her message ends up.

Students practice Kazakh as part of the Directed Independent Language Study program, which allows Elis to learn rare tongues.
Spencer Hayden
Students practice Kazakh as part of the Directed Independent Language Study program, which allows Elis to learn rare tongues.

After contacting Yale graduate students and other universities, Kosinsiki reaches out to foreign embassies and their U.N. delegations, but word-of-mouth can be key to finding suitable instructors.

“What I find interesting is the roundabout way people find out about it,” Kosinski said. “I had a lady who, after hearing from someone that I was looking for a native Rotoro speaker, literally showed up on my doorstep. I don’t know how she found out about it. But … what are the chances of finding a Rotoro speaker who had lived in Uganda but now lives in New Haven and who was not associated with Yale?”

Established in 2001, the DILS program helps students learn a language not normally offered at Yale by providing them with a native speaker to practice with, though the program expects students to learn grammar independently through textbooks and audio materials. Yale students said they are impressed with the DILS program’s ability to find language partners and textbooks for quirky, off-beat languages. But some participants said the lack of actual teachers and academic credit for the program make it difficult to develop proficiency in a language.

Nathalie Alegre ’08 said learning Quechua through the DILS program has been exciting because the ancient language of the Incas is not even taught in her native country of Peru. Alegre said she hopes that by learning Quechua, she will be able to converse with the native, rural farmers who have been affected by the Peruvian government’s environmental sustainability policies when she travels to the country this summer.

“There is a stigma against the language,” Alegre said. “It has mostly been spoken by people who are lower in economic status. When the Spanish came, they spoke Spanish to everyone, but the people who remained speaking Quechua began to be seen as backward.”

Nicholas Handler ’09, who is studying conversational Tibetan through the DILS program, said he has enjoyed the intimate setting in his classes, which are capped at three students. It has enabled him to focus not only on proper pronunciation of the language but also on the cultural heritage of Tibet, he said. For instance, his language partner told him that because Tibetans do not know their own birthdays, they collectively celebrate theirs on the birthday of the Dalai Lama, Handler said.

Kosinski said such “wonderful cultural and human interactions” occur quite often in the DILS program. When a couple of medical students traveled to Nepal after learning Nepali through DILS, Kosinski said, the family of their language partner hosted a welcome reception for the Yalies.

While students said they appreciated that DILS provided them with the option of learning a language that is not otherwise offered at Yale, they said the nature of the program can make it difficult to establish a strong foundation in the target language.

Sean Jackowitz ’08, who is studying Kazakh in preparation for interning in Kazakhstan this summer, said that if he had already traveled to Kazakhstan or was a native speaker who simply wanted to maintain his language fluency, the DILS program would be perfect. But as someone “coming out of the cold,” learning the grammar and vocabulary independently has not been easy, he said, and as a result his Kazakh is “horrendous.”

“I would be unsatisfied if I had more of an interest, but it’s adequate for what I want for Kazakh,” Jackowitz said. “I can say ‘Hello, how are you,’ and ‘Where is the bathroom?’ But I probably couldn’t read anything in Kazakh.”

Jackowitz said the difficulty in learning the language has been exacerbated by the fact that there appear to be no Kazakh language textbooks for English speakers and that the only dictionaries available are advanced linguistics dictionaries.

Nevertheless, Kosinski said the interest in the DILS program has continued to grow — from four students at its inception to around 100 students this academic year — and that she now has to turn down approximately one-third of the applicants to the program.

After students are accepted into DILS, the feasibility of the program is still contingent upon the availability of a language partner. The program has offered 48 different languages in its history, Kosinski said, and Guarani, which is spoken in Paraguay, was the only language for which she could not find a language partner.

“I think the popularity of the program is certainly correlated with Yale’s efforts to become a more international institution and [Yale President Richard] Levin’s efforts to make Yale a global institution. This has really put a premium on learning different languages,” said Sabrina Howell ’08, who is learning Uighur, a language spoken in the Xinjiang region of China, through DILS.

But some students said DILS could be even more popular if academic course credit were given for the program, especially since it has a final exam and a workload comparable to that of credited classes. Final exams are often conducted through a phone interview or video conference with a language instructor from another university who specializes in the language.

“When I describe the program to people and they hear you don’t get credit for it, they get a little scared,” said Rebecca Anastos-Wallen ’09, who is studying Kinyarwanda. “I don’t think I put in as much as I could have or would have, [and] part of that was because I still had my whole course load. I ended up dropping one credit, and I think a large part of that was because of DILS.”

But language partner Irina Dumitrescu GRD ’09 said that despite the fact that her DILS students do not receive academic credit, she thinks they are still academically driven and committed to learning Romanian to help their future careers.

Other students said that because DILS classes were not for credit, they were able to take the class in a much more relaxed, low-key manner. Aside from two hour-long meetings each week with the language partners, students said, the program is not a significant time commitment.

“I think it is really what you make of it,” Howell said. “You will learn as much as you want to learn. The point of DILS is that if you genuinely want to learn a language, you are willing to work on your own time.”

Each year DILS can offer up to 40 programs of varying languages and levels.

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