Courtesy of Serena Puang

The first thing you notice when entering Dow Hall office 102 is the three towering bookshelves. Linguistics reference books are obscured by a handmade leather laptop case, a giant orange top hat with “Holland” emblazoned on the side, fine china from various countries and other souvenirs from students and faculty. These are the pieces of cultures Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl has collected over the years, a testament to her desire for cultural understanding.

The laptop case is monogrammed with her full name — misspelled. Still, she proudly displays it because of its sentimental value. It was a gift from a former student from Kenya who was eager to share his community’s craft.

“I got to see how they tan the leather,” she explained excitedly, flipping the case over to show me the bright white block letters. “It’s beautiful.”

Van Deusen-Scholl is the director of the Center for Language Study at Yale, where over 65 languages are taught. Her duties include supervising the various language study programs, training and evaluating language professors and sharing innovative teaching strategies with other institutions.

According to the Modern Language Association, foreign language class enrollment in the US has been steadily declining for a decade. Some, including former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, have even posited that learning foreign languages is becoming obsolete.

But while other universities are cutting their programs, Van Deusen-Scholl is expanding foreign language study at Yale. Under her supervision, the Center for Language Study has added 18 less commonly taught languages to its offerings, including Burmese, Finnish, and Zulu, through a collaboration with Cornell and Columbia. Yale’s Directed Independent Language Study (DILS) provides one-on-one language partners and funding for 94 other languages, such as Hawaiian, Igbo and Lakota, that students would otherwise not have the opportunity to learn.

While most presume that the goal of language study is proficiency, Van Deusen-Scholl embraces a different paradigm: she believes that language study is about cultural identity and “understanding that there’s not one way of looking at the world.”

Van Deusen-Scholl was born in the Netherlands, where studying three or four languages is normal, regardless of education level. Her classics-based high school required six: Dutch, English, French, German, Greek and Latin. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she came to the US on an exchange program and ended up staying to do her graduate and doctorate work at the University of Florida.

You can trace her work through the languages she has studied. She learned Arabic while she wrote her dissertation on second-generation Moroccan immigrants to the Netherlands. She added Haitian Creole and Spanish to her repertoire while creating language programs to address the basic needs of Haitian and Mexican populations in South Florida.

Van Deusen-Scholl went on to teach English as a second language and Dutch at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania. But she now regards herself as a “teacher of teachers of languages.” She spends much of her time training the next generation of instructors at Yale by modeling pedagogy in professional development workshops and a graduate seminar course for language teaching.

One of her passions is helping students master their heritage language — a non-dominant language that speakers, often second-generation immigrants, grow up using at home but never receive formal instruction in. Since Van Deusen-Scholl started at Yale in 2003, policies and teaching practices for heritage learners have shifted from drilling prescribed grammar from textbooks and memorizing dialogues to valuing cultural identity and natural learning environments. This is accomplished by conversing with native speakers.

In America, heritage learners are often derided for their imperfect language skills by their native-speaking counterparts. Since they don’t study the language in school, many never develop a formal vocabulary or learn to read or write. They are often told that the way they speak is “wrong” and are filled with guilt and shame when they attempt to communicate. Van Deusen-Scholl emphasized the struggles heritage learners face and in her role, advocates for strategic changes that would “create pathways to validate people’s cultures” and give learners the opportunity to reconnect with them.

“It’s one thing to study language in college because you want to study abroad,” she said, “but when it means your whole identity is marginalized, then those are the things I find super important.”

In heritage classrooms at Yale, projects like the Korean Oral History Project exemplify Van Deusen-Scholl’s vision. Students interview their families or even strangers living in nursing homes in Korea, exchanging life stories in Korean via Skype.

“We try to involve the parents a lot,” explained Angela Lee-Smith, professor of Korean. Parents might not speak English, and the students, she says, “speak at home but only at a surface level, so they don’t really know about their parents. We perceive them as our parents, we don’t perceive them as a person, as immigrants, or other heritage speakers.”

Through language learning, students are equipped to reconnect with a part of themselves that may have been lost. Prior to classes at Yale, some students spend years having only basic conversations at home.

“They spoke to me in Chinglish, and I would speak back in English,” said Phoebe Liu, a sophomore who took heritage Chinese last year. “I loved the feeling of saying something I’d heard at home before without having any idea what it meant and deciphering it together with classmates who grew up with similar experiences. We bonded over the mashup of English and Chinese grammar patterns only heritage students could comprehend and the way our parents taught us how to learn and what to prioritize—aspects of our shared culture.”

This isn’t every student’s experience with Yale language classes. Due to funding and capacity constraints, there are heritage classes only in Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian and Spanish. Some languages are not offered for credit at all.

“My language should be a credit-worthy language as well,” said Madeleine Freeman, a junior hoping to use Choctaw to fulfill her language requirement. “I’m just trying to learn here.”

In Freeman’s case, Van Deusen-Scholl intervened with an alternate way to fulfill the university’s language proficiency requirement, combining the Turkish language credits she had already acquired, DILS, and a Choctaw placement test. Freeman acknowledged that Van Deusen-Scholl “went to bat” for her, but is frustrated by the bureaucracy that necessitated intervention in the first place.

Through programs like Yale’s Native American Language Project or DILS, students can study languages not taught at Yale. But students have complained that these programs are treated more like academic extracurriculars than coursework. Initiatives are in the works to create opportunities for credit, but for current students, this may not be enough.

In the meantime, Van Deusen-Scholl serves as a bridge between faculty, students and University administrators. In recent years, her advocacy has led to the broadening of immersive study abroad to include heritage speakers and a certificate that acknowledges concentration on language study on transcripts.

She acknowledges the limitations of Yale’s not-for-credit programs and hopes to add additional opportunities to study languages by next summer. Some may be confounded by the bureaucracy that surrounds these initiatives, but she seems undaunted. For Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, initiatives worth doing fall into only two categories: the ones that have been done and the ones that aren’t done yet.

Serena Puang | serena.puang@yale.edu

SERENA PUANG