Student initiative looks to diversify languages offered at USC

photo of Mark Taper Hall of Humanities
American Sign Language garnered the most interest from students with 47 votes, while Hindi was in second place with 43 and Tagalog was third with 34. (Brittany Shaw | Daily Trojan)

A student initiative aims to increase the amount of languages offered at USC. Kai Cayetano, a senior majoring in narrative studies, has pursued multiple languages at USC and is currently taking Advanced Korean II. However, in their time at USC, they have realized that despite the diversity on campus, language choices are extremely limited.

“I know my language is never going to be offered at a university because, one, it’s a dying language, and two, it’s an Indigenous language that so many people don’t even know exists,” said Cayetano, who is Garifuna, an Afro-Indigenous group from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. 

Last year, Cayetano started an initiative on campus to diversify and expand the languages offered at USC. They created a flier and released their survey as a Google Form in December of last year. The survey was circulated in Slack channels and by administrators through email blasts and received almost 400 responses. It was meant to gauge interest in specific languages and to show administrators that, if these languages were offered, there would be sufficient enrollment numbers.

American Sign Language garnered the most interest from students with 47 votes, while Hindi was in second place with 43 and Tagalog was third with 34. Next were Vietnamese with 31 votes, Swahili with 23, Navajo with 19, Thai with 18, Turkish and Cantonese tied with 13, Yoruba with 12, Arabic with 11 and Urdu and Tamil tied for 10 votes. 

In the early stages of the project, Cayetano met with Emily Anderson, Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences dean of undergraduate education, alongside other administrators to discuss next steps. Anderson said she was happy to hear of Cayetano’s project because it presented updated information about the languages students would like to see at the University.

“Our language curriculum changes and evolves often in response to [student concerns],” she said. “As an administrator, I see my role as [making] pathways clear and available to people and I try to keep bureaucratic obstacles to the side, but it’s really up to the students and faculty to determine what finally is accomplished.”

Significant student interest is required for the University to implement a language such that multiple levels can be offered and the program can have longevity, Anderson said. Hindi, which was the second most popular language in Cayetano’s survey, was offered on campus in Fall 2013 and Spring 2014. However, the program was terminated due to low enrollment, Anderson said.

(Anjali Patel | Daily Trojan)

“On a college and university level, we need certain enrollment numbers to sustain an ongoing curriculum,” Anderson said. “It’s important for students to demonstrate to faculty that there’s a kind of on the ground interest right now.”

Cayetano plans to push for the most popular languages on their survey to be added to University curriculum, including Hindi. 

“I really just want ASL and Hindi because those are the two main languages and multiple people stressed the need for it, even if they weren’t from that culture,” Cayetano said. “That’s what I want in three to five years. Give us two courses, please.”

Outside of enrollment numbers, establishing a new language can present other challenges. Different languages may need different resources to be successful as classes, said Evgeny Dengub, director of the Center for Languages and Cultures. 

“Let’s say we decide to add Ukrainian … there is no one on campus that teaches Ukrainian or has a Ph.D in Ukrainian studies,” Dengub said. “We would need to hire that person … [If] we’re discussing the possibility of adding heritage Armenian for students who speak it at home … the language would still need to find an academic home … but at least there’s faculty.”

Cayetano met with administrators last week to discuss what these classes could potentially look like. They said, prior to the meeting, that they were going to ask questions about the structure and credit value of these courses.

Cayetano said diversity has been the goal from the start of the project, and eventually hopes to implement languages from Africa, South Asia and South America. The push for language inclusivity outside of the longstanding most popular languages, they said, is needed.

“I’m not asking Dornsife or the Language and Culture Center to completely change everything it’s doing,” Cayetano said. “There needs to be more inclusivity … I want more things that are from Asia. I want more things that are from Central America, South America and I want more things from Africa.”

Correction: A previous version of the article said that Cayetano planned to meet with Dean Anderson this week. Cayetano met with Dean Anderson March 28. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.

Correction: A previous version of the article misstated that Dengub is the former director of the Center for Languages and Cultures. He remains the current director. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.