Ling Gao

Amid student demands and changing enrollment trends, faculty are exploring ways to meet calls for more Asian language courses.

Faculty members at the Shared Course Initiative, a collaboration between Yale, Columbia and Cornell that allows students to take virtual classes in languages not offered at their school, emphasized the critical importance of SCI in making a larger variety of languages available to students. Several Yale faculty also said they have adapted their language programs to address national and institutional enrollment trends and maintain student engagement. 

The News spoke to five faculty members who teach Asian languages at Yale and through the SCI and two faculty members in SCI leadership and learned how their programs have adapted to student needs. 

“The SCI model allows us to quickly and effectively meet [student] demands that we often do not anticipate,” said Fernando Rubio, director of the Center for Language Study at Yale. 

Rubio told the News that having the SCI format will enable the University to address recent student activism that has called on the University to offer courses in Tagalog, a language that is offered neither on campus nor through SCI. 

The SCI currently offers Yale students virtual language instruction in eight Asian languages not available in person at the University: Bengali, Classical and Modern Colloquial Tibetan, Khmer, Nepali, Punjabi, Sinhala and Tamil. 

“Thanks to their efforts and to the support they received from Yale College, the Council for Southeast Asia Studies, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, plans are underway to start offering [Tagalog] through the SCI in the near future,” Rubio wrote. 

SCI classes are held via video conferencing and classes take place in the classrooms of each university’s language center, per the SCI website

Two SCI instructors told the News that while SCI’s virtual format produces some challenges to student engagement, it is often the best option for providing students with learning opportunities they would not otherwise have access to. 

“It is always beneficial to bring more in-person language classes. However, each school might also have its own constraints and limitations that make it difficult to hold all language classes in person. In such cases, SCI remains the most effective and viable option,” wrote Sonam Tsering Ngulphu, a lecturer at Columbia who teaches Classical and Modern Colloquial Tibetan through SCI. 

Jay Ramesh DIV ’11, a lecturer in Sanskrit and Tamil at Columbia who instructs Tamil with SCI, wrote that the barriers to engagement in virtual classes are “not insurmountable.”

Ramesh explained that instructors can overcome these barriers by “actively encourag[ing] community formation” between the students in different locations. This can take the form of “discussion boards and social media platforms that students can use with minimal input from the instructor,” he said. 

“So it would be good if we could offer all of these languages at every school each year, but the alternative is more often that they would not be offered at all,” Ramesh wrote. 

Both instructors and Rubio wrote that they have received positive feedback from students about the effectiveness of the SCI classes. 

Vera Felder, the SCI program manager at Columbia, added that a SCI research study conducted over several years found that the SCI model “produces proficiency gains equivalent to, if not better than, face-to-face language teaching.”

Felder also wrote that the SCI model encourages inter-institutional collaboration and connection. 

“Students are able to build communities of practice and strong bonds across institutions with peers who share similar interests,” she said. “These connections often extend beyond language studies and develop into ongoing intellectual collaboration.” 

At Yale, three faculty members in Asian languages noted changing trends in student enrollment in their classes. 

Quang Van, the senior lector in Yale Vietnamese Language Studies, said that a surge in student enrollment in recent years has led to much larger class sizes in the Vietnamese program — an average of 16 to 18 students at each level. 

These class sizes, he added, “pose serious obstacles to effective language teaching and acquisition.” Additionally, the “heavy teaching load” of being the sole lector of six Vietnamese courses leaves him with “limited time for preparation.” 

Van said that he is in conversations with Rubio and Southeast Asia Studies Council Chair Erik Harms about options to address these concerns. He added that Harms plans to approach University leadership to look at solutions. 

“Unlike counterparts at Harvard and Columbia, where they have two language instructors at each school to handle smaller numbers of students, the Vietnamese program at Yale faces strain with its current situation,” he wrote. “I hope we can come up with options for these needs and concerns.” 

Korean language courses have also seen a rise in enrollment. According to Seungja Choi, senior lector in the Korean program at Yale, total enrollment was 107 in 2018 and 183 in 2023 – a 71 percent increase.

This reflects a national trend. A 2021 study by the Modern Language Association found that from 2016 to 2021, Korean language enrollment increased by 38.3 percent. Of the 15 most commonly taught languages in the U.S., only two other languages – American Sign Language and Biblical Hebrew – showed increased enrollment, with both experiencing growth by a much smaller degree – 0.8 percent and 9.1 percent respectively – compared to Korean. 

With support from the University, the Korean language department has hired two additional instructors in the last two years to accommodate this growth, Choi said. 

“I will not claim that this increase in enrollment is unique to Yale, but still I will say that the Korean language instructional team here is excellent,” Choi said. “And, as you know, the popularity of Korean culture – kpop, kpop dancing, Korean films, drama such as Squid Game, all those things – draws attention to the language also.”

While the national enrollment of students in Chinese language classes has decreased, according to Rongzhen Li, senior lector and program coordinator in Chinese, enrollment in the Chinese program at Yale has remained steady. 

According to the MLA study, enrollment in Chinese from 2016 to 2021 has decreased by 14.3 percent. But at Yale, the program reached a record high in the Fall of 2023, with 422 students enrolled, per Li. 

Li cited the strength of the Chinese instructors as the reason for the steady enrollment at Yale.  

“First of all, our Chinese teachers are doing a really good job. We really care about enrollment. We put in a lot of effort to promote Chinese language learning,” she said. 

Li added that the department is also willing to adapt to changing times. She said the department has changed their policy surrounding handwriting of Chinese characters with “less emphasis” on traditional handwriting standards relieving students of the extra burden and is also currently reviewing ways to utilize OpenAI technology in language instruction.

Li emphasized how incorporating cultural studies into language learning has been an important part of engaging students in recent years. 

“The more students know about China and about China’s culture, the more interest they show to continue the language,” Li said. 

The Korean Language program celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2022.