Manav Musunuru ’26 remembers wanting to learn Hindi and Urdu since he was a child, inspired by visits to family in India. But after enrolling in HNDI 0200: “Beginning Hindi or Urdu” this year, he has gained more than just navigation and conversation skills: A new group of friends.
“There aren't a lot of classes in which the entire class is friends with each other,” he said. “But in Hindi, it has been like that.”
This culture has been beneficial to his success in the course, he explained: It makes him “feel more open to being wrong or learning things.”
To better understand the University’s classes teaching languages natively spoken in Asian countries, The Herald analyzed enrollment data retrieved from Courses@Brown and spoke with current students and faculty.
The University currently offers eight courses for languages commonly spoken and read in Asian countries: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Vietnamese, Persian, Sanskrit and Hindi and Urdu, the latter two of which which are taught together. These are offered through various departments, including the Department of East Asian Studies, the Department of Classics and the Center for Language Studies.
The CLS looks to “support the teaching and learning of all languages on campus,” wrote Jane Sokolosky, director of the CLS, in an email to The Herald. The CLS houses Persian, Arabic and Hindi-Urdu among other languages.
Language classes are often structured differently than other courses at the University, Sokolosky wrote. “Our language classes at Brown are immersion classes,” she wrote. “Being in class for 4-5 times a week and doing daily homework exposes students to a lot of the language and students learn quickly” — preparing students to spend time in another country for an internship or to study abroad.
Since 2016, enrollment in these courses has fluctuated. Between the 2016-17 and 2022-23 academic years, enrollment in Japanese and Korean language courses has increased by 33.7% and 77.4% respectively, according to Courses@Brown enrollment data. On the other hand, enrollment in Arabic language courses has dropped by 41.8%. Chinese language courses saw a 4.5% increase in enrollment.
Increasing interest and external factors
This rise in interest in the Korean and Japanese languages comes as South Korea and Japan have increasingly played a predominant role in global popular culture. The rise in Korean language enrollment has been partially fueled by non-heritage learners, The Herald previously reported.
Heeyeong Jung, lecturer in East Asian studies who co-taught KREA 0200: “Korean” this semester, has noticed this increasing interest in the Korean language. She offered various reasons behind the increase in enrollment, including “the widespread appeal of K-pop and K-dramas” and the “allure of economic prospects and educational exchange opportunities in Korea.”
Jung noted that the University’s Korean Language Program has found that primary motivations for enrollment are interest in the Korean language and study abroad opportunities. Students also have cited interest in “contemporary popular Korean culture,” she added.
“Many students start learning Japanese out of their own interest in anime and other types of Japanese popular culture,” wrote Atsuko Suga Borgmann, senior lecturer in East Asian Studies who co-taught JAPN 0200: “Basic Japanese” this semester, in an email to The Herald. However, over the course of the semester, they become more interested in other aspects of Japanese culture, literature and history, he noted.
Virtual learning during COVID-19 and the trimester system employed by the University during the 2020-21 academic year also influenced enrollment in language courses, as a number of departments offered both courses in their introductory sequences that spring.
Language classes are often “filled with students having conversations in the language they are learning,” Sokolosky explained. The shift to online platforms “limited this spontaneous interaction” despite the success some professors had using various technologies.
Mixed motivations and the open curriculum
Students often have varying motivations for enrolling in language courses.
For some, including Jinho Lee ’26, language classes have been an opportunity to reconnect with their heritage.
“I was born in Korea, and Korean was my first language,” he wrote in a message to The Herald. But after moving to America at a young age, he “lost the ability to completely speak it.”
“Taking the intro classes here has really helped me in stepping back into the language as a whole without fear of judgment,” he added.
Others highlighted the accessibility and rigor of the courses offered. Benjamín Córdova Herrera ’26 — who takes Japanese and is looking to pursue an independent concentration in translation and interpretation studies — believes that the small class structure and daily meetings support his learning.
“Having class every day has been hard to keep up with but it allows you to learn so much more content than you normally would otherwise,” he wrote, adding that this structure helps “maintain fluency.”
“My favorite part of learning languages at Brown has been that everyone in the class is there out of genuine intellectual curiosity,” wrote Zoey Katzive ’24 in a message to The Herald, who has taken Hindi/Urdu. As students interested in the subject gravitate towards the class, there is “a community of students who want to learn and help one another learn, which has been gratifying both academically and socially.”
She added that it has “been nice to join a community of other South Asian students through taking Hindi/Urdu.” During the Spring 2023 semester, 23 students were enrolled in all Hindi/Urdu courses at Brown.
The lack of a language requirement with the Open Curriculum often supports class engagement, Borgmann wrote. “Students at Brown choose to be in language classes out of sheer interest rather than trying to fulfill mandatory degree requirements,” wrote Borgmann. “They are present because they are genuinely interested in learning a language.”
“In the context of the Open Curriculum, I think everyone should take languages,” said Musunuru. “It is a way to explore different cultures (and) fields of study.”
“Learning a new language opens up one’s perspective of the world,” wrote Borgmann. “If learning Japanese can make even a small difference in (students’) futures, that would make me extremely happy.”
Ryan Doherty is a senior staff writer covering faculty, higher education and science & research. He is a sophomore concentrating chemistry and history who likes to partially complete crosswords in free time.