So you want to learn a South Asian language . . .

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. . . and maybe you’re not made out of money? Maybe you attend a university that doesn’t offer any classes? Maybe you might or might not be willing to travel for language learning? Or maybe–you are not a university student?

Well, there are still some options!

Last year I stumbled upon some literary connections between the U.S. and India that seemed like they could become a dissertation chapter. The only problem was that some of the texts I would need were written in Bengali and Marathi. These languages were not available for study at my university. Keeping in mind the possibility that I might have to scrap my chapter idea, I began my search for language-learning opportunities. Now, after an inspiring summer at UW-Madison courtesy of a Lehigh Strohl Grant, and a funded year abroad in Kolkata from the American Institute of Indian Studies, I am happy to say that I have had the opportunity to learn Bangla while in the Ph.D. program here at Lehigh English.

In the interest of making such an opportunity a little less, well, privileged, I figured I’d share (someplace) a number strategies and resources I’d acquired during my language quest.  This post is that place!

Unless you are already in contact with a larger South Asian studies, comparative literature, or modern languages department, it can be difficult to find language classes, let alone pay for them. This post is for those who might find themselves in a similar situation (wanting to learn a ‘lesser-taught’ South Asian language, but not knowing where to turn). Since these kinds of resources are tough to discover unless you are already looking, I am also hoping that this post can let some folks who don’t have access to a South Asian language program know that this kind of education can be open to them, too.

While graduate students are eligible for almost all the programs I list, some have tracks available to undergraduates, independent scholars and community members, as well as faculty researchers. If it seems you might be limited by your geographical location or university course offerings, there still might be a class (and a funding opportunity) out there for you!
Search Strategies:

scooby doo mystery detective clues

1) Look local first. Look for classes at your own institution. Many schools don’t offer many language classes, but they might have an Asian Studies collective or some faculty members working on South Asia who could point you in the right direction. Research your own school, and find those people! If you can get some other students interested in the language, you can even petition your own institution to see if they would be willing to start a trial program.

2) Look for resources in the community and at other institutions nearby. Often universities have partnership programs with other institutions in the same region to share classes they cannot support themselves. Community groups also sometimes offer classes, and in the case of Arabic or Farsi, some religious institutions often have language-learning programs open to the public as well. Ask student groups like a South Asian Students association for help as well. It might be possible to find someone willing to help tutor you, or if you are further along, join in on a conversation group. Language learning often has its own pedagogy though, so depending on your goals it might be more important to find a good teacher rather than someone with native or heritage speaker fluency.

3) If you can afford to do so (keep in mind you CAN get funding) entertain the possibility of traveling, both domestically and abroad, to pursue opportunities if the language is important enough to you. Talk to the people in your life about the possibility of travel, and evaluate if that is an option you are willing to consider or not, and for how long you might be willing to be away. Think about what you might do if things don’t work out once you are there, and if possible, talk to your program about possible contingency plans for funding, research, and/or teaching if you need to come back.

4) Ask for money. Grants often have very general guidelines, and there will likely be space for you to justify the acquisition of a language based on your project’s needs. Look for funding grants through your own institution and external programs. Grants are often on different timelines than program deadlines, so apply to the programs first. If you don’t have the funding yet, the program might not run for lack of interest, and you might not be guaranteed a spot if it does.

APPLY for ALL the grants you find! Often the pools are small, and if your work is even tangentially related, you will likely receive some kind of funding. Cast a wide net–you’ll probably catch something.

5) Once you get into a program (and hopefully get funded), set goals for your project. Is it more important for you to know how to read older texts? Is it necessary to learn a regional dialect to conduct interviews? The language skills you need could be very different from others in the same program. If you come into the program prepared, your instructors will be able to help you evaluate your goals and aid you in working towards your specific interest.
If you are like me, even saying you are doing it just “for the poetry” can make a huge difference in how you are taught and the texts you encounter.

1) The Foreign Language and Area Studies grant program through the Department of Education is one of the largest sources of language learning funding. They fund the attendance of many students at universities that have their own programs, and they also fund students who must travel to take classes at other institutions. They offer subsistence as well as tuition funding, and you can apply after being admitted through your own or another university’s language program. Undergraduate and graduate students are eligible.

2)The  Critical Language Scholarship program is a summer program run by the State Department. While not all South Asian languages are offered, they do sponsor quite a few lesser taught languages through this fully-funded program. Plus, they are immersion based, so you will be funded to live abroad for the duration of the program. They offer Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, and Punjabi among many other languages. Undergraduate and graduate students are eligible, but check to see if your language requires prior study.

3) The U.S. Fulbright Program offers language-learning supplement grants to scholars whose research plans are approved for support. Independent researchers without university affiliation can apply for one of their grants as well, while graduate students can apply for both. Faculty members can also apply for funding. You can apply through nomination by your institution of independently.

4)The American Institute of Indian Studies, American Institute of Pakistan Studies, American Institute of Bangladesh Studies and the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies are the ONLY alternatives to the CLS or Fulbright programs for longer-term funded language-learning and research abroad for almost all the major South Asian languages. They offer language fellowships for the academic year, single semester, and summer, and you can apply to all of them as an undergraduate (just graduated as well) or graduate student. They offer junior research grants for graduate students and independent researcher grants as well, especially for those interested in the performing arts. Even if some of the languages say they require prior study, the applicant pool is often small and they will consider your application if you make a convincing case.

5) South Asian Summer Language Institute at University of Wisconsin- Madison: Perhaps the ONLY place in the summer to learn many South Asian languages without having to leave the U.S., they accept FLAS funding, offer their own tuition remissions and full-tuition grants, and accept funding from any other institutional grants that you might win. UW-Madison also runs programs in African, South East Asian, Central Eurasian, and Arabic dialect language programs at the same time as SASLI, and they similarly accept funding.

Apart from these funded opportunities, some institutions offer language programs on their own, and many will accept FLAS funding.

1) University of Pennsylvania offers language classes in a variety of South Asian languages, in addition to housing a South Asian Studies program.
2) Community organizations like Pragati:Greater Philadelphia Bengali Association sometimes offer classes and conversation groups.

New York (lucky you!):
1) CUNY Consortium- CUNY, Queens College, Queensborough CC, LaGuardia CC, and York College all participate in language credit sharing together. Sadly, only a few South Asian languages are represented, though some other lesser-taught languages like Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Hebrew, and Arabic are all available through this consortium.
2) Columbia University– South Asia Institute and MESAAS language program houses a B.A./ M.A. program in addition to offering language classes as part of their curriculum in Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, and Tamil.
3)NYU– Offers a minor in South Asian Studies, with classes available in Hindi, Urdu

I have done the most research on those in the Mid-Atlantic region, but I also know of some language programs (most often Hindi/Urdu, but some offer Bangla and Punjabi as well) at other institutions which I will just list here:
University of Washington
University of California-Davis, Berkeley
University of Michigan Ann Arbor
Penn State University State College
University of Chicago
University of Texas-Austin

If anybody knows of other programs or opportunities, please feel free to mention them and the languages they offer in the comments section.

Happy Learning!




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