Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity    April 2000 Volume XXIII Number 1

An Uncommon Chance to Study Less-Common Languages

Judi Hetrick

If someone wants to study Spanish, still the most popular second language among American students, the list of U.S. colleges and universities that can oblige runs for pages (in type the size of baseball box scores) in any directory of schools and majors. But if a student is interested in Russian, the list shrinks to a couple hundred. And if the desire is to learn Polish, Serbian and Croatian, Dutch, or even Mongolian, the students may begin to count first in the dozens and then on their fingers the number of U.S. universities that offer those options. Yet all these languages—among the 124 defined as “less commonly taught” by the Modern Language Association—are alive and well at Indiana University Bloomington.

Russian is a language that lives on the definition’s border. Depending on enrollment figures, which have been on a decline in the 1990s, in some years it is “commonly taught” and sometimes “less commonly taught.” “I’ve been to several conferences when people are sort of kicking us from one room to another, saying, ‘You don’t belong here, you are less commonly taught.’ ‘No, no, no! You don’t belong with us. You’re a main language.’ So it’s an identity crisis,” laughs Nyusya Milman, a language methodology specialist who teaches Russian as an assistant professor of Slavic languages and literature.

But those with fewer students than Russian have no identity crisis. “It all boils down to two groups. There are the big less commonly taught languages and the very tiny ones, like Polish,” explains Bozena E. Shallcross, a literary scholar, assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures, and director of the Polish Studies Center for the Office of International Programs.

Working in a very small field can bring benefits of breadth and freedom to the classroom. “One of the things I like about Mongolian studies,” says Christopher Atwood, a specialist in Mongolian history and assistant professor of Central Eurasian studies, “is you don’t have to be—in fact it won’t work to be—extremely specialized. . . . You teach everything from astrology to musicology to national defense; you do it all.”

A specimen of Mongolian penmanship done in calligraphic style with wooden pen, it reads left to right in columnar format.

“I think one of the really rewarding things about teaching less-common languages is the freedom that you have, too,” says Donald Reindl, a linguist who is an associate instructor in Slavic languages and literatures, teaching Serbian and Croatian. “It’s not like some language classes where you’ve got thirty-five sections and you have to keep in lockstep and give the same tests in the same subject matter at the same time. You can really meet the individual needs of your students, and if they have a particular interest, you can develop that interest.”

Those interested students are both undergraduates and graduates, both serious young scholars and those merely captivated by the idea of the exotic. But Shallcross has found one common characteristic in her students of Polish: “I encounter an amazing enthusiasm. My students never give me any problems regarding discipline, attendance, homework, quizzes. I have only good students. They know that it’s a less-common language, they know that it’s a more challenging language, and they are very motivated. It’s just amazing how in this sense it’s easy to teach them.”

Students find amazing enthusiasm in the faculty as well. One example is lecturer Inge Van der Cruysse-Van Antwerpen, who coordinates the program in Dutch languages and cultures through her affiliations with both Germanic studies and West European studies. “I’m running a micro-department within a department,” she explains. She not only teaches all four courses required for the Dutch minor and allows students to learn some of the Afrikaans she knows, but she also develops teaching materials, arranges for guest speakers and programs, recruits students, and promotes Dutch studies.

Milman, the author of several books and instructional CD-ROMs, is also an innovator with her teaching materials for Russian. She says, “I’ve worked with technology for a number of years. . . I used video extensively”—allowing students to produce tapes, using the language skills they’ve learned—”and I work with songs to teach grammar.” Like many of the other language instructors, she has found the introduction of the World Wide Web to be a boon: “It not only saves trees, but it also saves our time.”

The Web has opened new distance-communication possibilities for instructors of less-commonly taught languages. Reindl has students listen to Serbian and Croatian radio over the Web. And, he says, students benefit from online interactivity as well: “I’ve got a colleague who’s teaching Croatian in Germany right now, and I’ve had students set up pen-pal relationships with Germans who are learning the language.”

The Web brings to Bloomington classrooms material simply not available before. Atwood says: “The library for some reason has never been able to get any subscription to any Mongolian newspaper. The nice thing is now there’s a Web site that has newspapers available, and that’s been something that’s existed for three years.”

Among the challenges facing these instructors are language lab facilities in need of a technology upgrade and uncertain classroom assignments: not all the teaching spaces on campus have the TV-VCRs and movable chairs that are found throughout Ballantine Hall and that ease language pedagogy. The instructors would love to see more informal interaction among all language instructors and perhaps a language resource center for more sharing of ideas and techniques.

They also appreciate that students can watch international TV in the residence halls (thanks to SCOLA) make contacts in Bloomington’s international communities to meet native speakers, and reap the benefits of faculty development work with resources such as the Teaching & Learning Technology Lab. “They are really creative people who want to help with just about anything you want to start up,” explained van der Cruysse-van Antwerpen. “I think also creativity is important in our job, and that’s why I like the job so much."

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