A Summer Lesson, Taught in Zulu

Igbo, Yoruba and Zulu are some of the tongues students will study at the Summer Cooperative African Language Institute, or SCALI, hosted by Indiana University. NPR's Farai Chideya talks with Jennifer Hart, a graduate student in the program, and Alwiya Omar, the director of the program.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

So you want to learn a foreign language? How about Igbo or Yoruba or Zulu? Those are some of the tongues you can study at the Summer Cooperative African Language Institute.

This summer, the Institute is hosted by Indiana University. The courses span seven weeks. Students get elementary and intermediate skills in their choice of nine African languages.

NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with the director of the program, Alwiya Omar, and Jennifer Hart, a graduate student studying Twi.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

So, Alwiya, tell us some of the languages that you're teaching and the regions that they're from.

Ms. ALWIYA OMAR (Director, Summer Cooperative African Language Institute): Yeah. We have five languages from Western Africa. And it's Twi, Bambara, Yoruba, Igbo and Wolof. And from Eastern Africa, we have Somali and Kiswahili. In Southern Africa, we have Xhosa and Zulu.

CHIDEYA: Wow. That's a lot of languages. How many students do you have and how many teachers?

Ms. OMAR: We have over 80 students and 14 teachers.

CHIDEYA: So maybe, Jennifer, you can explain to us where Twi is spoken. You're studying Twi this summer?

Ms. JENNIFER HART (Graduate Student, Summer Cooperative African Language Institute): Yes, I am. Twi is spoken in a large part of Ghana, which is a country in West Africa.

CHIDEYA: And why did you decide to learn this?

Ms. HART: Well, originally, I had studied abroad in Ghana as a part of my undergraduate program. And I learned Twi there and I decided that that would be my area of research in graduate school. And so I'm continuing to study in order to better research in Ghana when I return.

CHIDEYA: So you're going to go back to Ghana and hopefully you'll be able to have conversations that are more than just hello, goodbye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HART: Yeah, exactly.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. HART: You can ask some meaningful questions.

CHIDEYA: Can you give us an example of a phrase or sentence that you're learned and then what it means in English?

Ms. HART: Sure. In Twi or in Ghana, everyone has a day name and it's based on the day you were born. So in Ghana, I would say (speaking of foreign language). So I was born on Saturday, so my name is Ana(ph).

CHIDEYA: Right, right. Now, Alwiya, tell us why the languages are chosen, and do they rotate each year? Is it kind of a popularity contest where the students say, well, I want to learn this and there you have to get people to teach those languages, or do you rotate the languages that you teach?

Ms. OMAR: We teach the languages that are requested by students. They depend -the choice of languages depend on the interest of the student, their research interests, and, for some, what they want to do as a language requirement.

So we have some languages that keep on being requested, the same languages. For example, here at IU, we teach Twi and Kiswahili and Bambara as our regular courses. And those three are being taught this summer. But then we have Somali that we don't teach here.

And we also have Zulu. Zulu is one our regular courses too. But other languages are (unintelligible) upon request and depending on the interest of the students.

CHIDEYA: Where are you from originally?

Ms. OMAR: I'm originally from Zanzibar, Tanzania.

CHIDEYA: Do you teach a language class?

Ms. OMAR: I teach Kiswahili during the academic year and I coordinate other -the teaching other languages.

CHIDEYA: Now, how did this program come about? I assume at least part of it has to do with the fact that a lot of colleges may not themselves teach African languages. They might teach romance languages or...

Ms. OMAR: Right.

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Ms. OMAR: And - yeah - and some of the languages may not be the (unintelligible) where they teach African languages. Some of the languages might not be regularly taught. And so not enough students in that particular center. But if from different centers, then we have three or four or five students interested and they can go to one institution to do this. And the ideal thing is to do it in the summer.

CHIDEYA: What other things do your students do besides sitting around, and, obviously, learning the language?

Ms. OMAR: Yeah. Actually, they don't just sit around. They do a lot of stuff in class. But outside class, they do other activities to enforce what they've done in class. They do conversation sessions, they meet with their instructors or other speakers of the language. We have these cooking sessions that they do outside class and they technically learn about how to cook the different kinds of ethnic foods that are in their target language countries.

And also at the end of the institute, we have the highlight. We call it the African Language Festival, where all the students from one class will come and do - present a skit to show what they have achieved of the period of seven weeks. And the skits could include songs, poems and other different things.

CHIDEYA: Now, Jennifer, I understand that you're going to have a group dinner tonight with African cuisine. Are you going to be cooking anything?

Ms. HART: I won't be cooking anything tonight. But when Ghana was playing the World Cup, we met - my class met several times to watch them play and we would cook food. And we made groundnut soup and some rice. My teacher also made Jollof rice. So we've experimented a little bit with Ghanaian food already.

CHIDEYA: And finally, Alwiya, there are so many more Africans in America today than there ever have been, immigrants, and bringing with them all of their languages. Is that one reason why you think this program has become more popular or does it have to do more with people traveling outside the U.S.?

Ms. OMAR: African languages, people have been interested in it for a long time. And I think it's being exposed to other cultures here, and also wanting to know more in the target language countries. So traveling to other countries may have triggered this interest in learning African languages.

CHIDEYA: Jennifer Hart is a student of Twi at the Summer Cooperative African Language Institute on the campus of Indiana University. And Alwiya Omar is director of the program. Thank you both.

Ms. OMAR: Thank you.

Ms. HART: Thank you.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

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