University News

Language GISPs explore unfamiliar tongues

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, March 14, 2012


To learn a language like French, Spanish or German, most students simply register for a course. But for languages not offered by the University, students must put in extra effort to create a class from scratch. Students have recently studied Swahili, Wolof, Vietnamese, Telugu and advanced Korean and Arabic through Group Independent Study Projects.

“It’s much easier to learn Spanish than Swahili,” said Peggy Chang, director of the Curricular Resource Center, as resources for some of these languages are hard to find in the United States. Despite this difficulty, language GISPs are held to the same standard as other language courses, meaning they meet more frequently than non-language courses and require speaking and listening components, she said.

Elsa Amanatidou, director of the Center for Language Studies, assists students in finding necessary resources. 

Amanatidou played an important role in gathering resources for a Swahili GISP, the only language GISP offered this semester. When approached by Danny O’Donnell ’14 with a proposal for the GISP, Amanatidou helped him find Kenyan native Bernard Onyango GS to be the class advisor.

Onyango is fluent in Swahili, but is only present for one of the four times the class meets each week. As a result, the students must be self-motivated and push each other to learn Swahili. Almost every day, they sit in Wilson Hall reading the language to each other and translating phrases into English.

Most students participating in language GISPs do so because the language is connected to their families or heritage, Chang and Amanatidou both said. This was the case in previous Telugu, Korean and Vietnamese GISPs.

But the three students currently studying Swahili are not of Kenyan heritage. Their motivation is rooted in their personal interest in the region.

Eli Okun ’15, a Herald senior staff writer, has always been interested in East Africa and is considering working for the Peace Corps.

Rebecca Wolinsky ’14, a community health and Africana studies concentrator who plans to study abroad in Nairobi next year, said she ran a program for East African refugees in high school and came to Brown knowing she wanted to work with youth refugees. She currently volunteers at Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment, as does O’Donnell.

O’Donnell, a development studies concentrator with a regional focus on East and Southern Africa, traveled to Kenya and Zimbabwe during a year off from college. The University’s development studies concentration requires students to demonstrate competency in a foreign language, so O’Donnell said he chose to create this GISP to learn a language that would be most relevant to his coursework.

Though the University offers concentrations in development studies and Africana studies, it does not currently offer any native African languages in its curriculum. O’Donnell and the other students in the Swahili GISP said they are frustrated with this lack of language options. Amanatidou said she has made multiple efforts to bring an African Fulbright Scholar to the University to teach Swahili. 

Amanatidou looks into each specific language GISP to help the students determine “what specific learning outcomes are most relevant to their situation,” she said.

But students, not Amanatidou, design their course syllabi and objectives. Self-motivation is the key to a successful GISP, especially one that focuses on a completely new language, Amanatidou said.

In the early 2000s, Adrienne Thal ’05 matriculated at Brown as a deaf woman who had been raised in an integrated community where she communicated by reading lips, not by sign language. At Brown, she became dedicated to the University’s deaf culture. She created an American Sign Language GISP, and by her senior year, the University had added the class to the language curriculum.

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