“Vannakkam,” my Tamil teacher greets each of the four students in our class as we enter a small basement room of the Center for Language Study every day.
So much about the scene is strange — the really comfortable armchairs arranged in a circle, the sound of retroflex consonants, produced by flicking the tongue against the back of the palatal ridge, emanating from around the room in a way so counterintuitive to the English speaker’s ears. Oh yeah, and when was the last time you took a class with four people in it?
This experience is familiar to many enrolled in Yale’s less commonly taught languages — small programs that are often subsets of bigger Yale departments or occasional offerings through Yale’s Directed Independent Language Study Program. Often overlooked, these languages have been of immense value to many of the students learning them. By studying these languages, students gain the opportunity to do social work in a country so different from ours or the experience of interacting with literature excluded by the “Western canon.”
Yoruba, Zulu, Persian, hieroglyphics, and Nepali are more than just strange words you see every time you scroll through OCI. To many, they are the windows into cultures that make up significant parts of the world.
Most people recognize that the way a language works and thinks is directly linked to the cultural ideals held by its speakers. They say that the Eskimos have a thousand words for snow and the Romans thousand words for war. Learning the differences between those thousand words is the key to recognizing the distinctions that make a people what they are, and the best way to learn those differences is probably to learn the language that is their root.
“[When you learn Tamil], you are accessing a profoundly rich culture that a lot of people don’t know about and don’t spend time thinking about,” Blake Wentworth, the director of the South Asian languages program, explained. “The grammar and the language are so different. When you traverse that difference, your sense of what human possibility and capability for expression are can be dramatically increased.”
Professor Sandra Sanneh, who teaches the South African language Zulu, agrees. For Sanneh, the link between language and culture reaches beyond a language’s modes of expression into the cultural tradition that caused the language to develop in a certain way.
“Learning a language like this is a very good way to access the culture, because you can’t teach a language without also teaching its cultural underpinnings,” Sanneh said.
An awareness of non-Western cultures goes a long way when students aspire to work in the countries where these languages are spoken. Especially where African languages are concerned, Yalies often want to go “make a difference” — but to do this requires an understanding of what is already there.
“[Language] is a way to get into the reality of life — a life that is living, vibrant and doesn’t totally depend on the West, which is easy to forget,” Sanneh said. “It’s a positive introduction. Beautiful songs, elegant poetry and ways of expression, and fun and jokes and everything else that goes with language.”
Professors in the African Language Program have seen tangible effects of the increase in awareness and caring that they think accompany language study. Professor Kiarie Wa’Njogu, who teaches Swahili, likes to observe the shifting dynamic between his American students and Kenyan culture over the course of the year.
When Wa’Njogu showed a clip of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Kenya, for example, he saw that his students were listening to the clip and emotionally reacting to the destruction of all the buildings, including the ones around the embassy unaffiliated with the U.S. government. He attributes this to a change in perspective that comes with language study and is a prerequisite to effective social work in these countries
One student, Heshika Deegahawathura ’14, was motivated to take Tamil to gain just this type of awareness. Having grown up in the Sinhalese portion of Sri Lanka, which was torn by civil war for nearly three decades after it gained independence in the 1950s, he wants to learn Tamil in order to understand the other culture of his homeland.
“This past summer I was working in the primarily Tamil-speaking areas of my country and I realized it’s my responsibility to learn the language of the other side, the language that most Sinhalese people don’t know,” Deegahawathura said. “I want to go to Jafna [a Tamil city in Sri Lanka] next summer and even if it’s just walking into a store and buying something, feel like I’m getting closer to being able to bridge that divide.”
Moreover, the ability to speak local tongues is simply a practical skill in the toolbox for social work.
“By the times some students enter their field, they have enough language to help their research,” Wa’Njogu said. “They can engage in knowledge production.”
The question of whether or not “knowledge production” is still possible is a big question for any of us in the humanities who have considered a future in academia. I might think it interesting to produce scholarship on say, Catullus, but as I’m reminded of every day in Latin class, it’s been done. By everyone. For 2,000 years. But for the literatures of less commonly taught languages, the future may be a little shinier.
“[Tamil scholarship] is open territory by-and-large,” Wentworth said. “In the history of South Asian studies in the West, Sanskrit really has a hegemonic position. It’s only been fairly recently that Dravidian languages have been considered subjects worthy of Western literary study. There’s just so much left to do. There’s a very rich core literary tradition that hasn’t been worked on at all in English, let alone translated into English. Even the undergraduate student can really make a contribution.”
That small languages can, in a way, be more “productive” than the staples of the humanities might seem counterintuitive. But as we experience a shift in education away from the classic liberal arts and towards “an increased professionalization,” as Wentworth puts it, there is some prioritization of learning that opens up undiscovered territory. Learning these small languages isn’t crazy — whether it be to fully understand the culture you’re trying to help or engage in research that is satisfying, it may be the way to go.