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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Center for the Study of Language and Culture offers new Less Commonly Taught Languages

Many Notre Dame students fulfill their language requirement with one of the typical language offerings: French, Spanish, Italian and German. In recent years, however, the Center for the Study of Language and Culture (CSLC) has begun to offer Less Commonly Taught Languages (LTCLs). The most recent additions include Swahili, Bengali, Turkish and Vietnamese, Denise Ayo, associate director of the CSLC, said.

“The way this program works is by piggybacking on the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program that’s sponsored by the State Department and administered by the Institute for International Education in New York,” she said.

The Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program seeks to deepen American students’ knowledge of both the language and culture of different nations, while providing foreign teachers with the chance to experience American culture and incorporate new methods. FLTAs, as the foreign teachers are called, are supported by a U.S. university for one academic year while teaching one or more levels of a certain language.

“Right now the FLTAs we have are funded by Notre Dame International and the Liu Institute [for Asia and Asian Studies], and they are responding to the needs of students coming to them,” Ayo said.

For now, the program is relatively small, Ayo said: Bengali has just one student, Turkish two, and Swahili and Vietnamese each have around seven. However, the students requesting the languages are extremely dedicated, often choosing their language based on service work.

“One of the students who is in Swahili Intermediate II — which is being offered this semester — he goes to Tanzania every summer and works in a hospital,” Ayo said.

Other students are taking the newer languages based on their cultural backgrounds, especially the students studying Vietnamese, Ayo said.

“We’re getting a lot of students whose grandmothers speak Vietnamese, or they grew up hearing it, whom we call heritage speakers — they understand Vietnamese but they can’t speak it. They can’t produce it, they can’t write it, so they’re trying to gain that proficiency,” she said.

Ayo said she hopes that as time goes on and various institutes continue to support the FLTA Program, more students will choose to study LTCLs. Part of the issue, she said, is that students fail to see the practicality of a language spoken so far from home. She described the issue of practicality as being based not in reality, but in a student’s reality.

“Bengali is the sixth most spoken language in the world. These aren’t little languages,” Ayo said. “Students know Spanish is important, and sometimes South Asia or Africa is just so far away, but it’s so important as we start to look globally. Any language is going to drastically improve your outlook on the world.”

Ayo said she was enthusiastic about the FLTAs at Notre Dame both this year and in past years.

“These are young, exciting instructors, and they are very in touch with the culture,” she said. “They’re going to be able to tell you things about Bangladesh that most people can’t because they actually live there. .... It’s worth just getting to know them.” 

One such FLTA is Thao Nguyen, who teaches English at the university level in Vietnam and is teaching beginning and intermediate Vietnamese this year. Teaching has been Nguyen’s life-long passion, she said. She received degrees in education, English and linguistics in Vietnam.

“I dreamed of becoming a teacher when I was very small,” she said. “I was just born to be a teacher. The favorite game we played when we were small was to teach other kids in the neighborhood about how to do math exercises or how to cook. Most of the time I acted as a teacher and I love that role so much.”

Nguyen said the FLTA program gives her an opportunity to expand her knowledge of American culture, which she said will enable her to better serve her Vietnamese students.

“We teach American Studies back home, but we have few ideas about the real American people and their lives — how they react, how they treat others and how they study and work, and about their education system,” she said.

It’s a big transition she said — before coming to Notre Dame for FLTA training in early August, Nguyen had never been to the U.S.

“It’s a chance to explore the world around me,” she said. “This is a big change in my life — this is the very first trip that I’ve taken far from my own country, and I’m learning new things living in a totally different place, with a lot of first experiences. .... I have a lot to learn, to adapt to, to get used to.” 

Despite the obvious challenges of arriving in the U.S. for the first time and immediately jumping into teaching students unfamiliar with Vietnamese Nguyen said she was enthusiastic about her classes and students.

“Most of the time I try to speak Vietnamese so they can acquire the language and immerse themselves in an environment of Vietnamese,” she said. “They have some difficulty, but up until now they have overcome it very quickly. I love the way they study and get involved in the activities. .... I have to say they’re very cute.”