Looking for a way to practice Hawaiian reading, Travis Chai Andrade ’24 approached the Firestone librarians about some native language materials. He learned that there were almost 300 sources – books, old newspapers, artifacts – to explore.
He also brought a Hawaiian Bible to school. “I’m not even religious,” he said. “But there are so many words there.”
The University offers education in 26 languages, but ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i is not one of them. To study languages outside of the formal curriculum, Chai Andrade and several other students engage in self-directed education, highlighting both the limits and the 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 multiple 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 at University,” Vogoti said, “but there was no formal way to do it through courses.”
In conversations with friends at the Princeton Hindu Society, Vogoti realized that other students also hoped to practice Telugu, a Dravidian language spoken in southeastern India. After gauging student interest, Vogoti started the Telugu language table at the start of his second semester at the University.
“I don’t think we should have to seek formal validation from an external source, like the University, to give credence to a certain subject, language or culture,” he said.
Language tables have a particular advantage over a classroom, according to Vogoti.
“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 break through the barrier. The informality makes it enjoyable while not putting pressure on grades.
Still, for Chai Andrade, co-president of Natives at Princeton, it’s important to learn Hawaiian in a university setting. Formal instruction in the language would allow her to more fully pursue her research interests in the Hawaiian religious tradition.
“We have all these Hawaiian-language journals and documents, and songs and chants that have cultural significance and traditional knowledge built in,” Chai Andrade said. “If you lose the language, you lose the ability to understand those connections.”
His motivation is also personal.
“As someone of Hawaiian descent who has struggled to find ways to connect culturally,” Chai Andrade said, “[learning Hawaiian] is something that I feel I have to do. A lot of times if you want to do something at Princeton, you have to find ways to say it’s intellectual. But there is this aspect of learning an indigenous language that is important in itself.
This meaning, 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 Workshop in Princeton, led by Natalie Stein ’22 and Liam Seeley ’23, has been involved in advocacy regarding the addition of native language offerings. The group has also organized events – such as a discussion with New York’s Quechua Collective and a performance by Quechua language poet and activist Irma Alvarez Ccoscco – to celebrate the Andean language.
“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 mainstream languages, is a great way to broaden the education that takes place at Princeton.”
Calls for increased linguistic representation come at a time when the University is expanding its offering of Indigenous studies. In December 2020, the University announced a donation of $5 million to create an endowed position for the first chair in Indigenous studies.
Yet implementing a new language program – such as a program for an Indigenous language – is a long process that depends on factors that go beyond student advocacy.
“The decision to offer a new language sequence at Princeton is one that takes time and planning to ensure its longevity,” wrote Jamie Rankin, director of the Center for Language Study and senior lecturer in the German department, at the Daily Princetonian. “Any new linguistic sequence therefore requires continued student interest, as well as a sustained 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 virtually enroll in Vietnamese courses taught at Brown University. .
Within the Ivy League, Princeton offers education in fewer languages than most of its peers. The University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Columbia, and Yale each offer more than 40 languages, while Harvard offers nearly 90.
“It’s exciting to see how eager Princeton students are to learn new languages,” Rankin wrote, “both the ones taught here and the ones Princeton doesn’t currently offer.”
Stein sought to learn Quechua independently after studying abroad at Princeton in Argentina during the summer of her sophomore year. During a trip to the northern province of Jujuy, she heard Andean music concerts for the first time.
“I ended up really liking this music, so when I came back as a junior, I researched Andean music all year,” said Stein, a music hub. “A lot of the material I was working with was in Quechua, so that’s what got me interested in the language.”
Like Stein, Benjamin Roberts ’22 sought 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 in a community radio and arts center, and more broadly, to get to know the people around him. Every day, on returning home, he chatted with a man who taught him a new proverb.
“I thought it would be a shame to lose him,” Roberts said of his fluency in Wolof.
When Mouhamed Ndiaye ’22 launched the Wolof Language Table in the 2018 academic year, Roberts said he was excited to participate. Ndiaye lived in Senegal, where he spoke Wolof as his first language, until he moved to the United States at the age of 12.
“The language table is a great opportunity to bring others interested in the language to practice,” said Ndiaye. “Usually we just sit down to a meal of dining room food, and we have guests and share a bit about ourselves. It’s really informal.
Princeton offered Wolof lessons, 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. On each call, Ndiaye presented different media, such as short news clips, for the group to watch and discuss.
According to Ndiaye, participants at 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’s an important way to connect with family and friends and learn more about this culture they are connected to.”
Despite the lack of formal course offerings for these heritage speakers and otherwise interested students, the groups nevertheless persist in their study of the language – and in their advocacy for expanded language opportunities in the university curriculum.
Molly Taylor is a staff writer for The Daily Princetonian. She can be contacted at email@example.com.