UC Berkeley needs to support African language programs

Classroom with Ethiopian flag and Amharic language on the board
Samantha Patten/Staff

Every semester, UC Berkeley offers many new courses. The Amharic language course offered this spring is especially noteworthy. Except for a brief pilot program in 2006, this is the first semester students are able to take a course in Amharic, one of the languages of Ethiopia, which is spoken by nearly 26 million people worldwide. The course, which only opened for enrollment the week before the spring semester, was nearly full by the end of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, just before classes started.

Clearly, there was a pent-up demand for this language. Student motivations include plans for research, study, travel and work, as well as deepening cultural and familial connections. Amharic stands out as a new course at UC Berkeley with many motivated students.

Students studying African languages at UC Berkeley — currently, Arabic, Amharic, Chichewa and Swahili — are poised to participate in one of the most significant global developments unfolding in the 21st century: the increasing importance of Africa demographically, economically, socially and culturally.

Africa currently constitutes about 17 percent of the world’s population. It is the youngest continent in the world, and the youth population is only increasing. Significantly, this means that the world’s working age population will be largely African. Economically, overall growth rates on the continent are relatively high, with the International Monetary Fund reporting 3.76 percent real GDP growth. Ethiopia’s rate is an extraordinary 8.49 percent.

While poverty and inequality persist, there are marked signs of progress with movements such as Africans Rising seeking equity and social justice amid these changes. And, culturally, the innovative and creative impact of Africa is felt globally from movies (e.g., “Black Panther”) to fiction (e.g., the Caine Prize for African Writing) to dance floor beats (e.g., the gqom beat from Durban) to sports (e.g., Liverpool’s Mo Salah). Afrofuturism is more than a movement; it is a 21st-century reality.

To engage and participate in these changes, UC Berkeley students must be equipped with cultural and linguistic skills. Google Translate can be useful, but it is inadequate to conquer the task of true collaboration or to facilitate deep understanding. As it stands now, the students enrolled in UC Berkeley’s Amharic class are among the few in the whole of the United States studying the language. The latest language enrollment survey from the Modern Language Association in 2016 reports only 58 students in eight institutions — Stanford University, Howard University, University of Florida, University of Kansas, Boston University, Harvard University, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and University of Pennsylvania — studied Amharic.

Creating the opportunity for students to study African languages at UC Berkeley remains an ongoing struggle. Unlike languages from other areas, for many years, there was not a teaching department dedicated to African language instruction, despite the UC Berkeley Department of Near Eastern Studies long offering Arabic. Starting in 1959, a few UC Berkeley graduate students obtained Foreign Language and Area Studies, or FLAS, fellowships from the U.S. government under the National Defense Education Act, or NDEA, to study African languages, but they had to travel elsewhere for instruction. This NDEA program morphed into the U.S. Department of Education Higher Education Act Title VI programs. In 1979, the newly established Center for African Studies gained Title VI grants for a National Resource Center and FLAS fellowships to fund the teaching and study of African languages at UC Berkeley. Initially hosted by the linguistics department, African language instruction moved to the department of African American studies in 2008.

Since the mid-1980s, through dedicated and entrepreneurial efforts on the part of staff, faculty and students, the campus collectively has dedicated funds to support African languages, particularly Swahili. Funding from the federal Title VI programs, however, remains critical, though inconsistent. Fiscal crises and federal politics have meant that overall funding for the Title VI programs has diminished, resulting in fewer and smaller grants. This directly affects African language courses at UC Berkeley. Lacking these grants for African studies from 2014-2018, UC Berkeley could not continue instruction in Wolof and Zulu. The Amharic course this spring, which joins Chichewa and Swahili, is only possible because the Center for African Studies recently obtained new four-year Title VI National Resource Center and FLAS grants. With this funding, the Center for African Studies and department of African American studies are working to add Igbo in fall 2019. For UC Berkeley students who seek to situate themselves in an increasingly interconnected world, African languages can offer a gateway for understanding some of the most important developments of a future that is already taking shape. That’s why, regardless of the financial challenges, the Center for African Studies will continue working to expand the language course options for UC Berkeley students.

Martha Saavedra is the associate director of the Center for African Studies. Leonardo Arriola is the director of the Center for African Studies and associate professor of political science.