An Online Partnership to Support Instruction in Less Commonly Taught Languages

Nick Obourn
November 15, 2012

More than 90 percent of U.S. foreign language students, from K-12 through university, study one of the Big Four—French, German, Italian and Spanish. That means minuscule numbers are taking all the other languages spoken in the world, according to the National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages.

A partnership between Columbia, Yale and Cornell seeks to counter this trend. With the help of a $1.2 million, two-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the three universities are pooling their resources and using digital technologies to increase student access to these important yet marginalized languages.

The courses rely on live, two-way videoconferencing, during which, for example, students at Cornell and Yale might participate remotely in a Morningside language class offered in Romanian. No more than 12 students can enroll in each class because the effectiveness of computer-mediated learning drops off after that point.

“We are trying to recreate as closely as possible a face-to-face experience for the student through synchronous meetings with classes,” says Stéphane Charitos, the director of the Language Resource Center at Columbia and one of the central organizers of the project. “None of the material is recorded or canned. We want this to be an interactive experience in which the students are active participants in the language learning process. To accomplish this, we are exploring how technology can enhance the teaching and learning paradigm for language study by becoming a bridge that allows us to overcome physical distances.”

While the definition of less commonly taught languages varies from university to university, generally it refers to those with lower class enrollments. The category at Columbia includes Swahili, Dutch, Bengali, Tamil, the Aztec language Nahuatl and many others.

In recent years, Title VI government funding, which supports the teaching of such languages at many institutions, has been cut by up to 40 percent. The lack of federal funding coupled with lower enrollments have left university language departments struggling to find ways to continue offering such courses, even as universities like Columbia look to prepare their students for a globalized world with a diverse and far-ranging curriculum.

The Columbia partnership is the result of over a year and a half of pilot programs that Columbia launched in collaboration with other universities. Columbia had a program to teach Nahuatl with NYU and Yale, as well as a program to teach Romanian with the University of Pennsylvania. One of the goals was to test the videoconferencing technology.

“The technology for the class is very similar to a Skype session,” says Omoyeni Clement, a Columbia College sophomore taking an elementary Yoruba class broadcast from Cornell. “The great thing about it is it allows for viewing the students, the professor and the whiteboard alone so I get an overall feel of being in a classroom when I’m hundreds of miles away. We’ve done things on the board, where I watch for the most part, but then we’ve also done skits, where I’ve still been able to interact with my partner via videoconferencing.”

This fall, Columbia, Yale and Cornell are offering courses in Yoruba, Romanian, Indonesian and Zulu using the shared course format. In the fall of 2013, the three schools plan to add courses in Khmer, Sinhala, Polish and Vietnamese. The selection of languages is based on student demand and on the strengths and weaknesses of the three schools’ language departments.

The live videoconferencing makes it necessary for students to attend class at regular set times. That contrasts to the increasingly popular digital model in which students fulfill all their course obligations online.

“A lot of the conversation about online education today focuses on mass courses with tens of thousands of students, but there are good reasons for Columbia to be involved in digital learning that is more specific,” said Sree Sreenivasan, the University’s chief digital officer. “And you never know what is going to change from a less commonly taught language to a language with more demand, popularity or geopolitical importance.”

Charitos notes that Columbia is currently engaged in rethinking the role of the university in a globalized world. “There is no better path in my opinion to helping our students develop the values that will enable them to become truly global citizens than promoting foreign language education,” he said.

In addition to helping students gain a global perspective, Charitos said, the less commonly taught languages allow the University’s increasingly diverse student body to connect to their cultural heritage or become familiar with it for the first time.

Clement is a good example. “Both of my parents were born in Nigeria but I was born in Canada,” she says. “They speak Yoruba fluently. However, I don’t. I am taking Yoruba to be closer to my home language and to be able to speak to people like my maternal grandmother who speaks absolutely no English at all."