University’s South Asia language center will serve as home base for collaborative pedagogical effortsBy Seth Sanders
The meticulous study of obscure South Asian languages may seem like one of those comforting but hardly crucial things that academics do. After all, who is harmed if there is a mountain tribe or two whose language nobody in the United States knows? But when the CIA called alumnus Steven Poulos last year, asking him for 54 translators fluent in Pashto, he had to point out that no one, anywhere in the United States, taught the language.
At the same time, Congress approved $1.6 million for the enhancement of South Asian language pedagogy. This month, Janel Mueller, Dean of the Division of the Humanities, announced the appointment of Poulos as Director of the new South Asia Language Resource Center, to be headquartered at the University. For the past 12 years, Poulos (M.A., ’68, Ph.D., ’ 75) has overseen the Center for South Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
James Nye, Director of the South Asia Language and Area Center, who created the winning grant proposal, wrote: “The goal of the Center is to meet the pressing need for human and material resources supporting the teaching and learning of the South Asian subcontinent’s languages.” A primary focus of the Center will be technology: among its goals are to “create and disseminate new resources for teaching and research on South Asian languages, mostly via the World Wide Web; offer advanced courses in language pedagogy in conjunction with the South Asia Summer Language Institute; develop a shared infrastructure for delivery and archiving of South Asia language resources; and share infrastructure and approaches among other institutions with overlapping interests.”
The effort Poulos will direct is very much a collaborative one. “There are by now 12 of these resource centers under Title VI. After 9/11, the feds suddenly realized that South Asia, the Middle East and Central Asia are critical. So the South Asian centers all got together to make a proposal, and Nye offered to make Chicago the main center.”
In the proposal Nye wrote: “Uniquely this center is a collaborative effort among the 18 leading institutions of South Asia studies in the United States. The anticipation is that while the base is located at Chicago, much of the project work will be done under sub-contract with many South Asia language faculty and their institutions across the country.”
Nye also explained how the new technology the center uses will not leave older resources in the dust, but breathe new life into them. “Nearly half a century of federal funding for foreign languages and area training resulted in many fine printed and audio resources for teaching the less-commonly taught languages of South Asia, but these resources are not centrally available. The new program will collect, refurbish and disseminate the best of those older resources, enhancing the new tools being developed for the changing environment of language instruction in the United States.”
Poulos enumerated the goals of the center. “First, to enhance pedagogy within the field of South Asian languages. Second, we have proposed that all of this be oriented to 21st-century technology, not just via the Web, but in general so it can be done over distance. Because of the obscurity of some of these languages, there are students in places without instructors and instructors in places without students. There may be some languages that are spoken by a lot of people, but there’s only one person in the world who can teach it in English. We want to use the technology in a uniform and efficient way to give people access, whether it’s to teaching materials to improve their skills or to that one person who can teach them Pashto.”
The Pashto example is not unusual, Poulos explained. “Many of these languages are far more widely spoken than they are taught in the West: Bengali is taught almost nowhere in the U.S., but it’s the eighth most widely spoken language in the world. Gujarat is the site of major political and religious conflict in India, but Gujarati is taught nowhere here except maybe night school, and Punjabi is barely taught, though it’s the language of 150 million people. And for us, a ‘small’ language has 10 to 20 million speakers. This is a neglected world area, and that’s a national issue for the U.S. now.”
Poulos, who earned his degree at the start of Chicago’s South Asia program, studied with the revered scholars C.M. Naim, Edward Dimock and Norman Zide. His linguistic background is in Urdu and Hindi.
He told the story of his return to Chicago. “I worked in finance and computers in the Bay Area, but at Berkeley, the South Asianists asked me to come back and said, ‘you don’t want to be making all those big bucks and enjoying life out in the real world, you want to come back to your roots.’ And so I did. Since 1990, I’ve been running the Center for South Asia Studies at Berkeley, and now I’m coming back here.”
Poulos also has operated an overseas Urdu language program in Pakistan for the University of California, Berkeley. In keeping with the new center’s high-tech, multisite nature, Poulos will continue to live in California and telecommute to his new position from Berkeley, visiting Chicago regularly to supervise and touch base.
The center’s electronic home can be visited at http://salrc.uchicago.edu.