Web Exclusives: On the Campus

January 24, 2007:
Language trailblazers

By Joy N. Karugu '09

“Katav,” begins Esther Robbins, a lecturer in Near Eastern studies, and the students in the room begin to follow her lead. “Katavti,” one student says. ”Katavta,” chants another; “Katavt,” ventures the third. And then the rounds start once more: “Katav,” says the first student again. With only three students in the Hebrew 101 class today, each student is able to practice the different forms of the past tense of “to write,” with Robbins correcting every one of their (few) mistakes.

Hebrew 101 isn’t the only language course at Princeton with only a handful of students. Once you step outside the most commonly taken languages at Princeton, numbers dwindle considerably. Today, students taking one of the four most popular languages at Princeton – Spanish, French, Italian, and Chinese – account for two-thirds of the student foreign language enrollment.

Many students select a language with which they are already familiar – usually one of the romance languages, or perhaps Latin or German. Only Chinese stands out as an exception.

Continuing with a language previously studied helps a student fulfill the language requirement more quickly, said Matthew Lazen, director of studies of Butler College, and it allows students highly proficient in a language to pursue literary studies or other advanced language courses.

But for the students who choose to study one of the less common languages at Princeton, such as Swahili, Hebrew, Hindi, or Korean, the reasons can be almost as diverse as the languages themselves.

For Jason Turetsky ’07, who started with Hebrew 101 his freshman year and is now in Hebrew 401, the choice of a language was based mostly on his need to read primary source material for his independent work.

“Taking Hebrew has given me an undeniable advantage in studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for my senior thesis,” said Turetsky, who also has studied Arabic. “The classes in themselves also taught me an incredible amount about Israeli life and culture, which enriched my understanding of the issue.”

Turetsky found that the class sizes in Hebrew – often five to 10 students in the intermediate and advanced levels – allowed him more flexibility in studying the aspects of Israeli culture that interested him the most.

“With only four or five students in a class, it’s easy to contribute to the curriculum, and to really shape the direction of the course,” he said. He also stressed the opportunity to practice the language in class: “With just five people – as in my advanced Hebrew class – that means you get a chance to speak 20 percent of the time, which is great.”

While most language courses try to limit their class sections to no more than 15 students, among the least commonly taken languages, the enrollments in introductory classes are sometimes less than half that.

In 2005, for example, first-year Turkish had six students enrolled, first-year Persian and Hebrew nine, and first-year Hindi just four.

Chinese instruction also offers students some of the benefits of a less commonly taken language, with twice-weekly drills averaging six to eight students. “Drills certainly give students the more individual attention they need for a language like Chinese,” said lecturer Yan Yan Chan.

Ravi Shah ’06’s decision to take Hindi was based on a different set of numbers. “The role of Hindi as the fifth-most-spoken language in the world really makes it indispensable as part of the Princeton curriculum,” said Shah, who had petitioned the administration for two years to make the language a regular part of the curriculum. “With [India’s] emerging economy, its importance in the region, and just the sheer numbers, Hindi is crucial.”

In addition to more student interest in Hindi, Mekhala Natavar, lecturer in anthropology and instructor in Hindi, has noticed that Hindi students want to learn Urdu, a variant of the language that is spoken in Pakistan.

Along with the benefits of beginning a new language at college, there can be some downsides to a trailblazer. Grace Kim, who is taking Korean 401 in the first year it is being offered at Princeton, found that “there aren’t as many resources such as textbooks, journals, etc., that other classes in Japanese and Chinese might have.”

Chris Simpson ’08 says that he always had an interest in Africa, and realized the best way to really understand the region was to start studying one of the languages.

Now in his third year of Swahili, Simpson had to petition the administration to hire a second professor to teach the language so that he could study Swahili as his first language for his comparative literature major.

Hiring a second instructor in Swahili has not been easy, said Mahari Mwita, lecture in comparative literature and instructor in Swahili. “Although the University has been very supportive, there definitely have been some setbacks.”

Simpson said he made the right decision, however. “Swahili has undoubtedly been the most important part of my Princeton experience,” he said. “Studying the culture and politics and people of the East African region with the language has definitely opened my mind to new ways of thinking about Africa.”

Joy N. Karugu '09 is from Hudson, N.H. She plans to major in comparative literature.