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African Languages Program Debuts

By Ella A. Hoffman, Crimson Staff Writer

In reaction to student demand, Harvard has created a new program enabling students to study an impressive array of African languages and travel to Kenya, Niger and Ghana during the summer.

The African Languages Program, unveiled this year by the Department of African and African American Studies, reflects the department’s efforts to fill a long-perceived gap in the offerings for students interested in studying Africa.

The expanded offerings may come as a surprise to some students, as none of the new language courses appear in this semester’s catalogue.

Details of the program were still being ironed out late into the summer and were not ready to be set in print.

But despite the limited fanfare, the new program is definitely up and running, according to its organizers.

“With the launch of these courses, we hope to become the leading institution in North America in the study of Africa,” Chair of the African Studies Committee Emmanuel Akyeampong said in a prepared statement.

According to John M. Mugane, director of the new program, only four or five African languages are commonly taught in American universities. But Harvard plans to offer at least 10.

And while many other schools’ language programs are dependent on government support through individual African studies centers, Harvard “has made a commitment to Africa independent of federal funding,” according to Akyeampong.

The new program is designed to emphasize oral fluency, reading comprehension and written expression.

“There is a crying need for rigorous intellectual study of Africa. This requires some facility in language,” Akyeampong said.

Both faculty and students have noted the void in the Africa curriculum at Harvard in recent years.

“The Committee on African Studies has always known the need for such a program existed,” Mugane said, and numerous student e-mails and queries drove home the urgency of that need.

Two years ago the Committee on African Studies conducted a survey to examine student interest in African languages and investigate which would be most popular, if offered.

In reaction to the survey results, Wolof was offered for the first time last year. Its popularity confirmed that the language program would be welcome.

This year student demand for African languages remains strong. Twelve students have expressed interest in taking Igbo, eight in Twi and five in Zulu, according to Akyeampong.

“When I first came to Harvard, my biggest frustration was that I couldn’t learn a South African language, which makes it rather difficult to do senior thesis research in South Africa,” said Bethany L. Hoag ’06.

But with the new innovations, Akyeampong vowed, students will get to Africa well before the time for thesis research rolls around.

The African Language Program will be an integral part of the department’s new African Studies track, which is scheduled to debut in fall 2004.

Some proficiency in an African language will be a requirement for a degree in the new sub-concentration (four semesters for honors degree candidates and two semesters for non-honors candidates) and will fulfill the College’s language requirement.

The beauty of the new program is its flexibility,” Akyeampong said.

Deciding which among the more than 2,000 African languages to offer was the program’s first challenge. In an effort to offer the largest number possible, the program has divided its offerings into two categories.

The lingua franca of each of the three major sub-regions of Africa will be taught regularly each year.

Assorted other languages will be offered through the African Language Tutorials Course on an on-demand basis.

The other major component of the program is a revamped and broadened set of study abroad opportunities, which will give students the chance to travel to Kenya, Niger and Ghana.

“We hope to give students a taste of what it means to be in a place they are not used to,” Mugane said.

Facility in any one of the three main languages—Hausa from West Africa, Swahili from East Africa and Zulu or its cousin Xhosa from South Africa—would enable students hoping to study in those parts of Africa to communicate successfully.

Students who have completed the Elementary Hausa course at the end of this year can journey to the University of Niamey in Niger to further study the language and participate in directed field study of environmental or health issues.

Students of Kikuyu or Swahili will have the chance to visit universities in Kenya and can also participate in an oral history project, led by Assistant Professor of History Caroline M. Elkins, which centers on the life stories of survivors of the Mau Mau Rebellion.

A long list of other languages, including Igbo, Kikuya, Twi, Wolof, Yoruba, Ethiopic and Banama, will be taught by native language speakers in the Boston area through the tutorial program.

“If there is no demand for a language, we won’t offer it, but if there is interest, we pull the native speaker’s file and bring them in to teach,” Akyeampong said. “It is not an infrastructure, which demands us to pay additional teachers,” he added.

The program required only two new positions to be created—a director of the African Language Program and a language preceptor.

Mugane, who comes to Harvard from Ohio University, has been hired to fill the director position, while Boston University’s John Hutchison has temporarily stepped into the role of preceptor this year as a visiting professor of African and African American Studies. The department has yet to make a permanent appointment.

After the flurry of negative press that surrounded the high-profile departures of two of its star professors in recent years, the language program could be an important step in reaffirming the department’s reputation.

“With the addition of the African Languages Program, Harvard is now one of the places to come if not the place to come to study Africa,” said Elkins. “Now that we have the languages, it puts us in the forefront.”

—Staff writer Ella A. Hoffman can be reached at

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