As part of Yale’s distributional requirements, every student is required to take a foreign language. Students sometimes balk at the requirement, perhaps believing their four years of high school Latin ought to count for several language credits and maybe even a few awards. Other students, however, see the choice opportunistically. It gives them the chance to explore a new language and culture. It’s often that these two types of students find themselves as deskmates in a hallowed Whitney Humanities Center basement seminar room for an introductory level language course.
For students with no experience in a foreign language, the requirement is to complete courses from Level 1 (L1) to Level 3 (L3). For students who have fulfilled L1 to L3 requirements through high school courses, the requirement is to take a single Level 4 (L4) or Level 5 (L5) course. Between Yale’s over 45-odd language options, some find difficulty in choosing which language is for them. The range in language department size is quite stark, from large departments like Spanish (with more than 15 current faculty members) to small ones like Czech (with only a single lector). While choosing which language to take, students may rely on several different techniques: continuing the language in which they have AP credits to get a single L5 credit and be done with it; learning the language their parents or relatives speak to reconnect with their culture; taking a language whose literature they admire; or, perhaps, being one of many students in search of a gut language — an easy class.
Every distributional requirement at Yale is associated with storied guts: “Galaxies and the Universe” for science, “Classical Hollywood Narrative” for humanities, “Estimation and Error” for quantitative reasoning (the anecdote I’ve heard: nobody’s ever wrong because it’s all estimation). Languages are no different, with certain departments designated as guts by the Yale grapevine, aka CourseTable, a course catalog which rates every Yale course by difficulty on a scale from one to five based on crowdsourced student feedback. Hindi L1 has a rating of 2.8; Czech L1 has a 2.6; Polish L2 has a 1.8.
Usually, the language courses associated with gut status are denoted as Less Commonly Taught Languages, or LCTLs: Egyptian, Finnish or Punjabi, as opposed to Russian, Chinese or German. There are exceptions: “Legal Spanish” (an L5 course) has a 2.2, and “The Short Story in Russian” (also L5) has a 2.4. But for the most part, smaller language departments are known among students as guts.
However, after speaking to the professors of these so-called “gut languages,” it became clear that the gut narrative is an oversimplification. And although the term “gut” may be associated with a somewhat critical connotation, the “guttiness” of these courses is nothing worth critiquing, but is rather commendable.
Karen von Kunes is Yale’s sole Czech lector, a Slavic bulwark against a wave of students more interested in Western European and East Asian languages. She’s taught at Yale for 26 years. She’s an author of textbooks, monographs and dictionaries, and she teaches L1 to L4 Czech along with classes on Czech novelist Milan Kundera and Czech filmmaker Miloš Forman. Additionally, she leads a study abroad program titled In Kafka’s Spirit, a combined course in Czech language, film and literature.
Calling Czech a small language department may be misleading. Yes, there is only one professor, but there is certainly demand. Last year, 40 students signed up to take L1 Czech; von Kunes could only accept 22, which, she said, was pushing it — this year the course was capped at 23. In some years, von Kunes told me, she alone taught as many as 100 students across all her courses.
This was not always the case for Czech. Before the language requirement was instated in 2005, not as many students expressed interest. In fact, when she first arrived at Yale in 1995, von Kunes was hired as a Czech lector with the possibility of teaching Russian should Czech enrollments be minimal. After the Velvet Revolution in Prague in 1989, though, there was an emerging renaissance of Western interest in Czech. “Language depends strictly on politics,” she said.
Von Kunes recalls a time, only five or so years ago, when she’d only have around 30 students total. But recently, she told me, she’d had more students in her introductory Czech course than her introductory Russian course. “Most of the students seem to enjoy [my teaching]. There are a few who don’t — perhaps I would say over my teaching career [that they] might be less even than 1%,” von Kunes explained to me with a smirk.
But it’s busy being so likeable. “I get so many demands that it’s becoming really quite a bit. Basically, I just work all the time on the weekends, and currently I’m in Newport, and there [are] former students from Yale who invited me a couple of times for coffee. I don’t even have time, it’s just really sad.”
While the growing interest in Czech is clear, von Kunes isn’t quite able to offer an explanation for it, although she points to the usual suspects. “Some [students] say they have a friend who knows some Czech, or they’ve been to Prague, or they are interested in hockey. And the Czech Republic is known for hockey,” she said. Many Yale hockey players take Czech. To appeal to such students, she may have them write Czech dialogues about hockey or give Czech presentations about hockey.
Many, however, would be quick to admit that their interest in Czech is due to its rumored gut status. When I proposed this narrative to von Kunes, she vehemently disagreed. “The language is very, very difficult,” she said. “Even Polish is simplified to Czech. All the Polish, to me, looks very complex. But actually, grammar wise, or morphological wise, it’s actually slightly easier.” Czech, like Latin, Russian and many other world languages, has a declension system, meaning that words are altered slightly depending on their syntactic position in a sentence. These fall into a variety of cases, including genitive, vocative and dative. Czech has around 138 total cases, making its grammar extremely complex and difficult to apprehend as a foreign learner.
Von Kunes hopes that her students have at least a meager understanding of Czech by the end of their time with her. “It’s impossible — I mean, not impossible — but very unlikely that someone [who] learn[s] Czech within four semesters will be fluent,” she said. Occasionally, there are exceptions: a student who after two years of taking her courses translated a Czech novel; another became a journalist in the Czech Republic after only four semesters. But usually, the learning curve is steep. In class, von Kunes compares the process to learning one’s native language: it took us all the first couple years of life to begin stringing together even the most rudimentary of sentences. Language learning is quite an involved process.
Because the language is so difficult, von Kunes tries to grade with kindness. “We all know that learning a language is actually quite difficult. So perhaps we have more understanding on the part of students. If I would look at every single little mistake, and take, let’s say, one point off, [that] could fail all students.” von Kunes said. “This was the system under communism — that’s how I was actually trained. If we made one single mistake, that was B, if you had two mistakes, that was C, and so on.” Politics, then, do not merely influence what courses are taught, but also the teaching styles of professors.
Von Kunes’ grading has had a positive effect on her students. Mary Orsak ’22, a Russian major, has worked quite closely with von Kunes both in class and through outside research.
“I think that in no way is the language itself a gut … but I think when you have a professor who really cares about the well being and success of the students, sure, that ends up seeming like an easy class, because you have the best support system you could imagine,” she said.
Like Czech, Polish at Yale is intimately connected to geopolitics. “Polish was the strongest in the Cold War era … Poland was like the mediary [between the Soviet Union and the U.S.],” explained Krystyna Illakowicz, Yale’s lector of Polish. Illakowicz teaches L1 through L5, along with two English language courses about Polish theatre and film. A recent resurgence in Poland’s international significance, as relations with the European Union grow ever rockier, has propelled the language into a new importance. “Maybe the negative, as well, is in some ways interesting,” she said.
In recent years, around thirty students have enrolled in Polish each semester. Five years ago, however, Illakowicz experienced a slump. To combat it, she began advertising. “If you don’t [advertise], you stop existing,” she told me. There is a precarity of being a small language professor: always at the whim of the demands of your students, always at risk of becoming too niche. Von Kunes has expressed similar concerns: despite the interest in Czech, she fears that after her retirement in only a few years, Yale will cancel the program.
To help increase enrollment, Illakowicz asked professors in other departments such as history, philosophy and theatre studies to advertise Polish through their departmental emails. She also placed signs all over campus declaring Polish as “the language of love.” She’s happy to inform that romantic relationships — and even a few marriages — have sprung out of her Polish classes, she told me.
Historically, Illakowicz struggled with the student perception that her language was too difficult. In the past, in order to have a course appear in the catalog, a teacher needed at least five students to enroll. For a while, Illakowicz teetered on the edge of fading into obscurity. “It’s like a vicious circle. Because when the course is invisible, then, of course, students don’t know about it. If they don’t know about it, then somehow [it] slowly, slowly disappears,” she said.
Illakowicz admits that Polish is a difficult language. But to temper such a tough second language, Illakowicz tries to teach with kindness. “As in every class, we want to make these languages attractive, available to the students. … Learning a language is like moving back to your kindergarten, okay? So you need to play in class, you need to enjoy,” she said. They play games, they sing songs, they eat candy (to teach her students about diminutives, Illakowicz brings in a fudge candy called krówka, or “little cow”) — language students become children once again. But Illakowicz pushes back on the label of “easy.”
“I would say playful,” she said. “But I don’t think that easy is the right word. Playful. Engaging.”
Illakowicz values the community that can be built in a language class. When students meet five days a week, close connections form. Perhaps it is not just Polish that is a language of love — each of these introductory language classes, in a way, forms a loving community, especially so in small languages. “I think that we build very strong relationships with the students because there are not 100 students. I know every student; students know me. So it’s a very, very close relationship. I’m always very willing to keep those relationships,” she said.
Having such a community in these introductory classes proves integral, according to both the Czech and Polish lectors. Von Kunes pointed out that many students struggle with self-confidence at the onset of learning a new language. “Languages are often taken by freshmen,” she explained. “[Some] freshmen go through that crisis, [where] they were the best in high school, and suddenly, they find … tremendous difficulty [learning a] foreign language.” But when students are offered the chance to fail together, to make mistakes side by side, they are more willing to take chances and more willing to experiment with the language. These classes are all about cultivating comfort.
Swapna Sharma has taught Hindi at Yale since 2009. She came to the U.S. in 2008, spent one year at the University of Chicago, and has been in New Haven ever since. Each year, she teaches courses ranging from L1 to L5, along with a class on Modern Hindi Literature. “I’m coming from more [of a] research background. And when you’re teaching language courses five days a week … you don’t get a chance to do anything [else]. … If you are really [trying] to give your best, then you are busy all the time.” Teaching five days a week leaves little time for outside work — especially as a lector who also balances teaching several classes with conversation sections, office hours and tutorials. Despite the heavy workload, language lectors like Sharma are paid less than professors and are not on a tenure track. Now, Sharma only has time to conduct research and write papers over the summer.
Despite being a lector in the world’s fourth most spoken language, Sharma has less access to resources than other lectors as part of the relatively small South Asian Studies Program. The program is one of a few that is only allowed as a second major. Sharma told me, “If South Asian [studies] can be [a] first major, then we can do a lot of different things, which we are capable [of doing], but we don’t get a chance.” Sharma would like to use her research background to teach more research-oriented courses on higher-level literature.
But teaching is Sharma’s passion. She loves her students, and she loves watching them succeed. “I feel [my students are] like my extended family when I’m there. … A student comes in the class and knows nothing. And then suddenly that person is writing journal entries and saying something. It’s like [how] we feel when kids start walking and you know, ‘oh my God,’” she said.
Like Illakowicz and von Kunes, Sharma has a reputation for being a kind, relaxed teacher. She follows the same dogma that students in a language class ought to feel comfortable in order to learn. “Maybe somebody is very sharp, very intelligent, but he or she is struggling with the language. … [You have] to provide [the] best help to encourage the person to not feel left out because this is very isolating,” she said.
In order to achieve this goal of inclusion, Sharma makes sure not to overload her students. “My purpose is not to give too much work also, but in the class to motivate them. … By just giving more homework, they feel a burden and they don’t enjoy class. I think you don’t learn a language until you feel fascinated [by] it,” she said. She assigns work she hopes the students will enjoy: poetry, films, TV shows, newspaper articles and Bollywood songs.
Vijay Pathak ’24 has enjoyed his experiences with Sharma so much that he has considered taking on South Asian Studies as a second major.
“We were invited over to Professor Sharma’s home when COVID guidelines permitted, and that was for me a truly unique experience, because I got a taste of what that culture at Yale is, which I suppose encourages learning even outside of the classroom,” Pathak said. “But also I think that was just a direct benefit of the fact that we are maybe her only students, just by virtue of how small the department is.” Professor Sharma’s classes also had meetings on Cross Campus, where students across all levels could meet each other and connect.
The assignments, too, helped cultivate community in Sharma’s classes. For example, Pathak had an assignment to write a group skit in Hindi. “It’s difficult not to become friends with people you’re learning a language with and acting [with],” he said.
Pathak had very little background in Hindi before joining the class. Unlike Czech and Polish, Hindi requires learning a new script in addition to new grammar and vocabulary. “I found it tricky, personally — very enjoyable — but it took a lot of effort for me, because I wasn’t necessarily as good as some of the other, maybe slightly more fluent speakers in the class. So I wouldn’t see it as a gut necessarily.” The format and class size, he told me, helped him through the difficult aspects. Sharma led small conversation sections with her students, where only two or three students would be on the Zoom call with her, and they would carry out a conversation. Such individualized learning on a weekly basis was hugely beneficial to students like Pathak.
The term “gut” is a broad label that glosses over deeper particularities of how a course is taught. CourseTable ratings cannot distinguish between classes that don’t require participation, classes that require minimal effort, and classes that have kind, understanding professors. For language classes, the first two are certainly untrue. They meet everyday. They require learning new scripts, new grammar and new vocabulary.
It is the kindness of professors like von Kunes, Illakowicz and Sharma that earns them their gut status, as professors who see their students as their own children and try their best to make the complicated language acquisition process as simple and enjoyable as possible. Low CourseTable difficulty ratings are not always reflective of a lack of rigor, but rather an indication of the conscious effort by instructors to take the time to truly engage with their students and ensure the comfort of each and every one of their children.
Correction, Oct. 28: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that students who have fulfilled L1 to L3 language requirements complete their requirement by taking one L5 course. In this case, the requirement can be satisfied by either an L4 or an L5 course. The News regrets this error.