‘Speak…and be proud:’ On lesser-known language classes at UC Berkeley

Nishali Naik/Staff

It is the fall of my sophomore year. I’m sitting in a classroom, reading aloud a feminist poem I have written in Armenian about a woman who tears down the layers of her body in search of her true self. In this moment, I feel wholly empowered: The Armenian language, downtrodden and attacked throughout history by colonizing forces, flows forth here from my own tongue, and I form part of a compelling history of keeping the language alive, dynamic and ever-evolving. The language is my own, and no institution or political entity can take away that part of my identity.

That year, I took two classes that changed my life. In Armenian 101A and 101B, the intermediate Armenian language classes offered at UC Berkeley, I discovered a personal connection to my Armenian roots through literature. In writing in Armenian, I felt that I was carrying on a decades-old tradition of using the Armenian language to preserve Armenian culture against the erasing forces of imperialism and marginalization. I suddenly realized that my political activism and love for the Armenian language were inseparable, as Armenian was a language of resistance.

Because of the immense impact these courses have had on my life, I decided to interview other students on their experiences with language classes. This endeavor felt particularly important in light of recent cuts to the resources of UC Berkeley’s language departments. Though these classes are incredibly important to cultural preservation and maintaining campus diversity, they have not been prioritized because of their low visibility and perceived lack of practical value. While students cannot be faulted for following current geopolitical and economic trends in selecting courses and preparing for their futures, the less conventional motivations students express for taking smaller language classes are still immensely valid and important. Thus, I visited classes in languages considered as similarly niche as my own experiences with Armenian: Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian 117A and Khmer 1A, as well as Armenian 1A.

Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian 117A is taught in the basement of Dwinelle Hall’s sprawling maze of hallways. While the building is known for its lack of a logical basis of organization, the class is highly structured and intellectually engaging. Three students — the total population of the class — engage in a constant back-and-forth with the professor, interrupting lecture to ask questions and fighting to avoid English until completely necessary. The students evidently know one another very well, laughing alongside the professor, huddling together to complete group projects and even collaborating on an assignment where they have to describe one another’s personalities in the language. The environment is relaxed and familiar, wholly unlike the 200-person lectures I am accustomed to.

One of the students, Tamara Pantic, spoke with me about her pride in the Serbian language and her heritage. Tamara is a sophomore majoring in political science. She is also of Serbian descent and moved to the United States from Serbia at a young age with her family.

“Now … I’m realizing I’m not going to be able to teach my kids the language. I want to be able to speak (Serbian) and be proud of it.”

She expresses her desire to improve her grammar and vocabulary so that she may be equipped to pass on the Serbian language in her family and maintain her connection to her heritage.

The language is my own, and no institution or political entity can take away that part of my identity.

“Something you see a lot in native speakers is that they don’t know the grammar, the reasoning behind anything. … I’m trying to build that structure back up,” Pantic said.

In contrast, her classmate Alex Michel, a sophomore considering a minor in Slavic studies, discovered his interest in Bosnian almost by accident. Irish by descent, he spent a year in an exchange program in Bosnia, where he fell in love with the culture and decided to pursue the language further.

“I ranked … all these countries before this region, and then I got chosen for Bosnia, … but I’m so glad I went there. It was the best place for me.”

Michel was not the only person inspired by his travels to pursue language study. Anna Nguyen discovered her passion for Khmer after spending a summer in Cambodia on a mission trip with her church.

A cognitive science major, she is taking advantage of her senior year to take classes in all of the languages that interest her. Aside from Khmer, that includes beginner classes in Japanese and Vietnamese, as well as intermediate Korean.

“I wanted to just understand Cambodians from their perspective a little bit more by understanding their language. … I enjoy speaking to people in a way that’s more comfortable for them — (in their own language).”

In Khmer 1A, the professor stands at the head of a table, facing nine students sitting in a circle and a large television screen, where two students from UC Irvine and one student from UCLA Skype into the class. This class is unique in that it accepts students from other UC schools interested in learning Khmer, as the language is only offered at UC Berkeley. The special nature of the class does not only come from this technological addition, though. Upon walking into the room, the students greet the professor with their hands in prayer position. I later learned upon interviewing the students that this is a customary form of greeting in Cambodia. The professor calls on students individually, and they tell him about their days, their interests, their favorite pastimes, in Khmer, linking words together to form sentences with their limited vocabulary.

Of all of the students I interviewed, Bethany Brody from Khmer 1A was the only one who expressed an interest in pursuing a career in the country where the language she is studying is spoken. Upon visiting Cambodia’s museums, she recognized that they did not contain the immense cultural wealth of the country’s history, and she hopes to change that through her work as an archaeologist.

“Anthropology is my major and my interest. … Going to Cambodia, I went to the museums, and they’re great museums, but it also made me think, well, maybe I can do something here.”

Doing something is the exact way I would characterize language study. Not as a passive, purely intellectual interest, but as a form of activism. An active effort undertaken in order to forge change.

“I enjoy speaking to people in a way that’s more comfortable for them — (in their own language).” — Anna Nguyen

I am inspired by the diversity I find in the classroom composition in Armenian 1A. The professor adeptly switches between the Western and Eastern Armenian dialects in her instruction. While students are encouraged to learn both dialects, they are welcome to speak in the dialect more familiar to them. Every Armenian language class at UC Berkeley follows this teaching philosophy, as the department aims to foster dialogue between the two dialects and encourage unity within the Armenian diaspora through language. Beyond this difference in language, the students come from vastly different backgrounds. Five students sit in the class, one of them an auditor who works as the campus’s Turkish language coordinator. Of the four other students, two of them are part Armenian, while the other two have no connection to the heritage. Joined by these students are two faces familiar to UC Berkeley’s Armenian students and beloved by them all — an older couple that lives in the area and frequently attends Armenian classes and events on campus. This eclectic group together translates Armenian sentences into English and vice versa.

Ultimately, language study is an act of connecting with one’s community, of sharing in a culture and discovering its richness and beauty.

“Our Cambodian professor told us, ‘You’re not actually learning the language if you’re not participating in the culture, too,’ ” Brody said. “There are courtesy things that you need to know if you speak Cambodian, and that’s true for every language and part of what culture is. … You’re learning the culture as you’re learning the language.”

Contact Lillian Avedian at [email protected]