When Deng-Tung Wang ’17 tested out of his language requirement with Spanish before his freshman year, he didn’t think much about learning another language.
But two years later, he found himself sitting in a classroom with a graduate student, a Swedish preceptor, and the instructor for the three-person course: “Elementary Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.”
“It was cool having this smaller class where you can really dissect and learn about a language with other people that I might not have engaged with,” Wang said.
This year, his last at Harvard, Wang is auditing Elementary Twi, a language spoken primarily in Ghana. He also decided to take up Beginning Swedish Language and Literature.
Wang said he’s found a supportive and personalized environment within smaller language classes, and he’s not alone. While many students flock to more popular languages like Spanish—more than 100 students are currently enrolled in Beginning Spanish I—others navigate Harvard’s myriad offerings in smaller languages, from Afrikaans to Yiddish.
Although these language classes differ significantly, they have a few characteristics in common. They are more sporadically offered and sometimes require a specific student request, provide a unique learning environment due to their small size, and often must cope with a variation in levels of experience among students.
Within the classrooms of Harvard’s smallest language classes, a wide mix of people—native speakers and beginning learners, College freshmen and fifth-year graduate students, researchers and linguaphiles—work to grasp the unfamiliar sounds and systems of a language that few of their classmates will ever understand.
PETITIONING A PATH
When Kyle Shernuk, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the East Asian Languages and Civilizations department, arrived at Harvard, he was eager to begin taking Taiwanese. But Shernuk said Harvard did not offer any Taiwanese classes at the time, and he thought he did not have any other options.
But what he didn’t know then was that he could, in fact, take a Taiwanese class—if he had petitioned to do so. If a student requests a language class and their request is approved by the Office of Undergraduate Education, they can take a tutorial in the course, provided that a department can find an instructor. The process is, by nature, decentralized and not well-known.
Interested students, though, cannot simply ask to take any language course and have that request granted. The student must demonstrate an academic need for the language, according to Carolyn Choong, language program coordinator for East Asian Languages and Civilizations.
“A lot of students will say I have a background, or my family’s from Cambodia and I want to learn the language, but that’s not enough for it to be approved,” she said.
Shernuk did end up successfully petitioning to study Taiwanese, which is relevant to his dissertation. Indeed, research is a common academic justification for petitioning a course, Choong said.
“My general focus is on contemporary or modern and contemporary Chinese literature, and I want to investigate non-traditional ways of thinking about what it means to be Chinese,” Shernuk said.
Shernuk also successfully petitioned for Colloquial Tibetan on the grounds of his research, and is currently the only student formally enrolled in the class, taught by teaching assistant Shoko Mekata from the department of South Asian Studies.
While Shernuk said he is not confident he will be able to continue his Taiwanese education at Harvard, he understands why it is not regularly offered: Compared to other languages in the region, it’s not widely spoken.
Agnes Broome, a Swedish preceptor and the language coordinator for Scandinavian languages, teaches courses that are both regularly offered and that must be petitioned.
Broome said students don’t need to formally request to take her beginning and intermediate Swedish classes. In her Advanced Swedish class, which is petition-only, Broome said she tries to tailor her material to the personal academic needs of her four advanced students.
She said she thinks Harvard’s petition system is an effective middle ground between offering students the language classes they want and being reasonable about the amount of resources they can expend.
“There’s clearly a goal from Harvard to offer languages that meet students’ needs and not hinder what they want to pursue, but at the same time, there is no way you can just let anyone take any language because there’s 6,000 languages,” Broome said. “It would be unviable.”
Even if a student’s petition is approved, the University cannot guarantee an instructor. Both Wang and Broome took Elementary Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian last year, but they cannot continue this semester because their instructor’s contract ended, Wang said.
Besides petitioning courses, students have also taken up activism as a way to introduce new language offerings at Harvard. This semester, after several years of student advocacy, the College reintroduced American Sign Language into its course offerings for the first time in more than 20 years.
‘WE LEARN FROM YOU, YOU LEARN FROM US’
Students in low enrollment language classes tend to have a wide range of experiences. They can also come from across Harvard’s schools.
Cooper Bryan ’19 grew up in Ethiopia and speaks Amharic fluently. However, he completed all his secondary school work in English and never learned to read and write in Amharic. That’s why he is currently taking Intermediate Amharic alongside one other native speaker and two students who began learning the language last year.
“It’s kind of, ‘We learn from you, you learn from us, let’s take advantage of each other’s advantages,’” he said. “It’s a lot more teamwork in a classroom where I’m trying to write my name, and I lean over to the kid next to me who doesn’t speak Amharic but can write it.”
Bryan said he feels much closer to his Amharic instructor, Mulugeta H. Zegeye, than to professors in his other classes. He hadn’t planned to take Amharic, but the instructor convinced him to take the class after they met at an open house hosted by the African Language Program.
“He guilted me into it a little bit, but it’s the best choice I’ve made in a long time,” Bryan said.
While students in these small classes benefit from personalized instruction and a close relationship with their teachers, students can’t sit in the back of the classroom without participating. This can be both stressful and helpful for learning the language.
“You can’t slack off which is great,” said Pamela Nwakanma, a Government student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who takes the Rwandan language Kinyarwanda. “You have to be kind of forced to do the homework, to ask questions, to be involved.”
WHY THAT LANGUAGE?
With the dozens of languages students can access at Harvard, the decision on what ultimately to take is a personal one. Students who decide to petition a language course often do so for research, but other students say they want to learn about other cultures.
Broome said that she always asks her students why they want to take Swedish. Their answers vary; some, for example, say they have Swedish friends who inspired them to take her courses, while others say they like swing dance, which is popular in Sweden.
“I say to my students that it makes complete sense at Harvard to do a weird language,” she said.
For some students, learning a language off-the-beaten-path is a way to reconnect with a culture. Bryan said he wants to make sure he remains fluent in Amharic and involved with an Ethiopian community because his family, who is American, recently moved from Ethiopia back to the United States.
“I think the Ethiopian culture and the people are so incredibly diverse and generous and hospitable and beautiful and that makes Amharic a lot of fun,” he said.
Ayush Midha ’19 said he wanted to learn more about East Africa after visiting Tanzania in high school, and chose to start Swahili as a freshman in college. He is now a course assistant for Elementary Swahili, and said his interest in the language intensified after he spent last summer in Kenya.
“I think in general students have a very limited exposure to African culture and in particular East African culture because it’s not really discussed in most history classes,” he said.
For students like Wang, learning a rare language is simply capitalizing on a unique opportunity.
“Where am I going to get decent Twi education outside of Harvard, right?"