On path to learning obscure languages, Elis play it by ear

Ari Berlin ’10 fared well during his spring-break travels to Morocco and Spain. He mastered “jus d’orange” in French and got by in Barcelona with his high-school Spanish.

“I’m not a languages kind of guy,” Berlin says.

Through Yale’s DIrected Independent Language Study program, about 50 students, including the four in this Zulu class, can study rare languages not typically offered by the University.
Emma Ledbetter
Through Yale’s DIrected Independent Language Study program, about 50 students, including the four in this Zulu class, can study rare languages not typically offered by the University.

Yet he speaks — or “interacts,” rather — in four languages: English since birth, Spanish from high school and Zulu and Afrikaans after Yale’s language programs.

Berlin has no ancestral connection to Africa: His Facebook picture displays South African children playing with his dark, curly hair. But as an African Studies and International Studies double major, he is devoting his academic career to the continent’s politics, culture and, of course, its languages.

Berlin is one of three non-heritage students in his four-person advanced Zulu class. He is also one of three students at Yale taking Afrikaans under Directed Independent Language Study, a program established in 2001 for students who want to study languages not usually offered by Yale. DILS currently has 52 students enrolled this semester; approximately half are undergraduates. But Berlin is one of many Yale undergraduates who take up lesser-known languages — categorically called “less commonly taught languages” by the Modern Language Association — such as Basque, Tibetan, Estonian or Oromo.

For Berlin, language study rounds out — and solidifies — his interest in South African township and youth culture. And after spending a summer in South Africa and taking advanced Zulu at Yale, he said he can now converse in the language.

“Speaking bits of Zulu is a good way to connect with people my age,” Berlin said.

Playing it by ear

“Gagvbrdghvenit.”

Andrew Olson ’08 cheerfully utters his favorite Georgian word, which is pronounced exactly the way it is written and translates to “You all tore us apart.” The word includes both the subject and direct object in the verb — common in the Georgian language — which makes its study “different radically” for Olson.

Olson is a linguistics major who plans to write his senior essay on the Georgian language, which he learns through small, interactive practice sessions in DILS. He first became interested in Georgian for its pure linguistic appeal. “It’s a language with consonant clusters and a beautiful alphabet,” he said enthusiastically.

Center for Language Study Director Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl said regardless of their motivation — “whether heritage, academic or career-related” — DILS students are drawn to the challenge of learning a new and, more importantly, different language.

“Students are driven by a greater degree to study less commonly taught languages than a language they were exposed to in high school,” Van Deusen-Scholl said.

Justin Moore ’10, who is also a linguistics major, is currently enrolled in Hindi and says he knows nine other languages. Sometimes, Moore confided, he literally plays it by ear when choosing which language to learn next.

“If I’m walking on the street and there’s something new to my ear that sounds interesting, I might want to learn it,” he said.

‘In it for the Zulu’

Berlin is just returning around dinnertime after two hours of watching the film “Igazi Lami” (which he translated as “My Blood”), followed by two more hours of Zulu instruction in the Center for Language Study. His study of Afrikaans through DILS — which earns him no course credit at Yale — takes up another two hours of his week.

But Berlin is not too concerned about the time commitment — he finds that these languages better inform the work of his major. “I guess I’m in it for the Zulu,” he said.

While learning the language in class, students are often exposed to various films, readings, and indirectly, cultural concepts and perceptions.

“Language study is always an introduction to the country that leads to something else,” said Sandra Sanneh, senior lector in African Languages and Berlin’s sophomore advisor.

In fact, Berlin did not decide on his major until he came back from traveling in South Africa during the summer after his freshman year. “Ari almost came in on a whim and stayed,” she said, recalling his first days in her class.

Oftentimes students “come in cold” to study African languages, looking to try something different, Sanneh said. She explained that students like the idea of the “rural African experience” — the Peace Corps image of a remote village. Zulu in particular, she said, sounds like an exotic language, with consonants that click and conjure up images of warrior and military might.

Rebecca Lieb ’10, who wears her own handmade jewelry, a trendy orange watch and a lime-colored dress, says she impulsively picked up Swahili for what she calls its “freak value.”

“It’s amazing how one’s entire academic fate can rest on one simple decision: what language to study,” she said.

After studying Swahili freshman year, Lieb said she applied for an internship in Tanzania on a whim. She landed a job with The People & Predators Fund and spent the summer with just four other English speakers in the small village of Loibor Siret.

Surprisingly, most of the time students say learning these languages is not about attaining fluency. There are well over 2,000 languages in Africa, Sanneh explained. This is one reason why Berlin said he decided to pair his Zulu study with Afrikaans. “It’s not about being fluent in one language,” he said, “but knowing bits of everything and understanding they all come into play.”

“Swahili,” she says, “was my third language, but it was also [the locals’] third or fourth language.”

For similar reasons, Beatrice Gruendler, professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and coordinator of the Arabic program, underlined the importance of learning the other two major Islamic languages — Persian and Turkish — along with Arabic.

“Turkic languages translated and emulated classics of Persian literature as a basis for their own literary development,” she said.

All graduate students in the Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations are required to take a Near Eastern language in addition to Arabic; most select Persian.

“We get a historically incorrect picture if we read just in Arabic,” Gruendler emphasized. “We only get half.”

Unfortunately, Gruendler said, both the Persian and Turkish programs are not adequately represented, but she hopes that a full third-year language curriculum and additional teaching staff will develop both studies. Turkish is also popular because of the large contingent of Turkish students at Yale.

‘Filling a void’

Along with a growing international population at Yale, many administrators said they have noticed a new and confident interest from heritage speakers, who increasingly pursue their parental or ancestral languages.

Students are even developing more informal forums to practice already popular and widely spoken languages such as Spanish. Just last Wednesday, Jonathan Jimenez ’09 — former president of the pan-Latino student organization Alianza — organized the first of what he hopes will be weekly casual dinners for students interested in “expressing themselves through their language.”

“The Spanish table will, predictably, be different things for different people, but it is definitely filling a void in the community,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Many students are excited about it.”

Jimenez is a staff photographer for the News.

Krystal Flores ’10, who sat with the group at Commons last Wednesday, said she thought the student-led language tables were a good idea.

“I feel that Spanish is important because I am Mexican-American and it is part of my roots,” she said. “Spanish class helps me to learn the language while these tables help me to truly put it into practice.”

According to Van Deusen-Scholl, the heritage movement has been growing in the last 50 years. “This is an interesting group of hybrid learners, who have started with another language, grown up with English and maybe want to return to that language,” she said.

Xuan Nguyen ’10 identifies herself as a heritage learner who started with elementary Vietnamese last year to acquire formal vocabulary, reading and writing skills.

“It was frustrating for some Vietnamese people in my class who could not speak as well as the white guy,” Nguyen joked.

Out of the approximately 50 to 60 Vietnamese heritage students on campus, around 40 percent take Vietnamese language classes, said Vietnamese senior lecturer Quang Phu Van. He said he thinks this number is high, considering there are some Vietnamese heritage students who have already fulfilled their language requirement with other languages. This semester, he teaches a total of 20 students enrolled in all levels of Vietnamese offered by Yale.

Occasionally, Quang said, undergraduates take the class because they are curious and want to try “something fun.”

“In 2004, I had Caucasian twins take the class,” he said. “They weren’t there for the language requirement and just wanted to try it.”

Sanneh agreed. “Students are not there because they have to be there,” she said. “We can take for granted they are there because they want to be there.”

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