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'In language there is life': Students find limitation and possibility in language practice outside University curriculum

<h5>East Pyne Hall, home to many language departments.</h5>
<h6>Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
East Pyne Hall, home to many language departments.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

Looking for a way to practice reading in Hawaiian, Travis Chai Andrade ’24 approached Firestone librarians about materials in the indigenous language. He learned that there were nearly 300 sources — books, old newspapers, artifacts — for him to explore. 

He also brought a Hawaiian Bible to school. “I’m not even religious,” he said. “But there are so many words there.”

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The University offers instruction in 26 languages, but 'Ōlelo Hawai‘i is not one of them. To study languages outside the formal curriculum, Chai Andrade and several other students engage in self-directed education, illuminating both the limitations and potential of informal language practice.

Sreeniketh Vogoti ’25, the founder of the Telegu language table, moved to the United States from Andhra Pradesh, India when he was three years old. Growing up, he was exposed to several languages — Hindi, Telugu, Sanskrit — through his family and developed an appreciation for multilingualism, which he hoped to pursue at Princeton.

“I wanted to interface with Telugu in the University,” Vogoti said, “but there was no formal medium to do that through courses.”

In conversations with friends from the Princeton Hindu Society, Vogoti realized that other students also hoped to practice Telugu, a Dravidian language spoken in southeast India. After gauging student interest, Vogoti began the Telugu language table at the beginning of his second semester at the University. 

“I don't think that we should have to look for formal validation from an external source, like the University, to give credence to a certain topic or language or culture,” he said.

Language tables have a particular advantage over a classroom setting, according to Vogoti. 

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“Worksheets and conjugations and things are important but often dry, ” he said. “In a social setting, people often want to talk, and they will try to get through the barrier. The informality makes it enjoyable while not putting on the pressure of grades.”

Still, to Chai Andrade, co-president of Natives at Princeton, it is important to learn Hawaiian in an academic setting. Formal instruction in the language would allow him to more fully pursue his research interest in Hawaiian religious tradition. 

“We have all of these Hawaiian language newspapers and documents and songs and chants that have cultural meaning and traditional knowledge embedded in them,” Chai Andrade said. “If you lose the language, you lose the ability to understand these connections.”

His motivation is personal, too. 

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“As somebody who is Native Hawaiian and has struggled in finding ways to connect culturally,” Chai Andrade said, “[learning Hawaiian] is something I feel I need to do. Oftentimes, if you want to do something at Princeton, you have to find ways to say that it’s intellectual. But there's this side of learning an indigenous language that is important in itself.” 

This significance, Andrade said, is conveyed by a Hawaiian proverb: I ka ‘Ōlelo nō ke ola, i ka ‘Ōlelo nō ka make, “In language there is life, in language there is death.” 

The Quechua at Princeton workshop, led by Natalie Stein ’22 and Liam Seeley ’23, has been involved in advocacy concerning the addition of indigenous language offerings. The group has also hosted events — such as a discussion with the Quechua Collective of New York and a performance by Quechua-language poet and activist Irma Alvarez Ccoscco — in celebration of the Andean language. 

“Raising awareness and education about indigenous peoples of the Americas is very important and relevant,” Stein said. “Having more language options, especially non-European or non-colonial dominant languages, is a really great way to expand the education that happens at Princeton.”

Calls for increased language representation come at a moment when the University is expanding its Indigenous studies offerings. In December 2020, the University announced a $5 million donation to create an endowed position for the first professorship of Indigenous studies.  

Still, the implementation of a new language program — such as one for an indigenous language — is a lengthy process dependent on factors beyond student advocacy. 

“The decision to offer a new language sequence at Princeton is one that takes time and planning to ensure its longevity,” Jamie Rankin, director of the Center for Language Study and a senior lecturer in the German department, wrote to The Daily Princetonian. “Any new language sequence therefore requires ongoing student interest, as well as a sustainable commitment of departmental resources.”

One option for students interested in a language not taught by the University is to take a summer course at another institution. According to Rankin, the University also partners with peer institutions to offer “less commonly taught” languages for credit — for example, Princeton students can enroll virtually in Vietnamese courses taught at Brown University. 

Within the Ivy League, Princeton offers instruction in a fewer number of languages than many of its peers. The University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Columbia, and Yale each offer over 40 languages, while Harvard offers close to 90. 

“It’s exciting to see how eager Princeton students are to learn new languages,” Rankin wrote, “both those that are taught here and those that Princeton doesn’t currently offer.”

Stein looked to learn Quechua independently after studying abroad through Princeton in Argentina during the summer of her sophomore year. On a trip to the northern province of Jujuy, she first heard live performances of Andean music. 

“I ended up really loving this music, so when I came back as a junior, I researched Andean music the whole year,” Stein, a music concentrator, said. “A lot of the materials I was working with were in Quechua, so that's what got me interested in the language.”

Like Stein, Benjamin Roberts ’22 looked to continue practicing the language he learned abroad in Senegal, where he participated in the University’s Novogratz Bridge Year program. He used Wolof in his work at a community radio station and arts center, and more broadly, to get to know the people around him. On his way home each day, he’d chat with a man who’d teach him a new proverb.   

“I thought it would be a shame to lose it,” Roberts said of his Wolof proficiency. 

When Mouhamed Ndiaye ’22 started the Wolof language table during the 2018 academic year, Roberts said he was enthusiastic to participate. Ndiaye lived in Senegal, where he spoke Wolof as his first language, until he moved to the United States at age 12. 

“The language table is a great opportunity to get other people who are interested in the language to practice,” Ndiaye said. “Usually we just sit around a meal of dining hall food, and we have prompts and share a bit about ourselves. It's really informal.”

Princeton offered Wolof courses, taught remotely by a Columbia University professor, in 2019 and 2020. Since then, the course has not been offered.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wolof language table continued to meet virtually. In each call, Ndiaye would introduce different media, such as short news clips, for the group to watch and discuss. 

According to Ndiaye, attendees of the Wolof table tend to fall into two categories: Bridge Year students, like Roberts, and heritage speakers. 

For heritage speakers, Ndiaye said, practicing Wolof can be particularly meaningful. “It is an important way to connect with family and friends, and to learn more about this culture that they have a tie to.”

Despite a lack of formal course offerings for these heritage speakers and otherwise interested students, the groups nonetheless persist in their language study — and in their advocacy for expanded language opportunities in the University curriculum. 

Molly Taylor is a Features staff writer for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at mollypt@princeton.edu.

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