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Nine languages to be offered during summer African language institute

Melissa Mitchell, News Editor

Released 6/19/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For students of African languages who want an immersive learning experience that also emphasizes the rich, diverse cultures of the African continent, this summer the University of Illinois is where it’s at.

“There is no other place. It is a fact,” said Eyamba G. Bokamba, a U. of I. professor of linguistics and African languages who is serving as director of the national Summer Cooperative African Language Institute. The U. of I. is the host campus for the 2007 institute, which rotates its location every two years to a different university with African area studies centers that have been designated by the U.S. Department of Education as Title VI National Resource Centers.

This year’s institute has been organized by the Center for African Studies in cooperation with the department of linguistics.

Students enrolled in the program have the opportunity to study one of nine African languages offered – from Akan/Twi to Zulu. Instruction is intensive; students spend four hours per day in the classroom, Monday through Friday, for seven weeks, using the target language for instruction from day one onward. They also experience total immersion in the culture associated with the language they are studying through a program of extracurricular activities and experiences ranging from cooking classes, potlucks and picnics to musical performances, film screenings and research forums.

“The advantage to total immersion is that students will remember and assimilate a language better than they do through any other methods, which emphasize grammar and vocabulary learning,” Bokamba said. “They are actually able to think through the language.”

In addition to Akan/Twi and Zulu, languages offered at the summer institute are Amharic, Arabic, Bamana, Pulaar, Swahili, Wolof and Yoruba.

Among them, Arabic has become an increasingly popular choice for students, Bokamba said.

“Because of the current political climate, demand for instruction in Arabic is pushing the boundaries of what we are able to offer” to students through the U. of I. linguistics department’s regular course offerings.

“We have waiting lists,” said Bokamba, who directs the department’s Languages Program, which focuses on instruction in “less commonly taught” languages. Those languages include five offered at the summer institute – Arabic, Bamana, Swahili, Wolof and Zulu – as well as Hindi, Sanskrit and Turkish.

In regard to opportunities for intensive summer instruction in African languages, he said, the institute is unrivaled.

“If you want to learn Arabic alone, there are other universities to choose from,” he said. “But you won’t get this kind of mix of African languages offered at SCALI anywhere else.”

Bokamba said enrollment in the summer institute has grown steadily since the program began, with this year’s class of 128 students the largest ever. It is also increasingly competitive, in terms of applicants and teachers. The students represent a mix of backgrounds; most are graduate students, from the U. of I. and elsewhere. Instructors, who also must compete for teaching assignments, include faculty members and graduate teaching assistants from Illinois; Indiana University; Ohio University (in Athens); the universities of Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin; and Yale University.

Part of the draw may be that “the U. of I. has a reputation as being one of the best academic programs for learning a language like Arabic,” he said. “We have the most comprehensive program (in African languages) anywhere in the country.

“Most other universities with African study centers offer up to the second year in many of the African languages regularly, and periodically up to the advanced level on demand, while at the U. of I., most of our languages are taught up to the advanced level.” Some, such as Arabic and Swahili are offered up to the fifth year of instruction; Lingala and Wolof are offered up to the fourth year, he said.

“A result of this is that our language program in African languages enrolls over 800 students per academic year – clearly the largest program of its kind in the nation,” Bokamba said.

In addition to instructional and cultural opportunities for enrolled students, the summer institute includes activities open to the local community. Among them, a weekly film series, research forum and concerts.

More information about SCALI, including an events calendar, can be found online at