Universities promoting courses in lesser-known languages

As the world becomes increasingly more interconnected, learning a second language can seem practical for many looking to get ahead and take advantage of unique opportunities.

While statistics from the British Council place Mandarin and Spanish as the most commonly spoken languages worldwide, many Canadian universities have taken to offering and promoting classes in an increasing number of lesser-known languages.

The University of Toronto (U of T) began offering a course to students in January on the dead Ethiopian language of Ge’ez. The language course is the first step towards the university’s future Ethiopian studies program. According to the Varsity, the program has received over $100,000 in donations from community members to aid in its creation.

Robert Holmstedt, professor of ancient Hebrew and northwest Semitic languages at U of T, said the Ge’ez language course he teaches fills a gap that had previously existed in the school’s language course offerings.

“Ge’ez is the only major Semitic language that had been missing from U of T’s course offerings,” Holmstedt said. “We have long offered Hebrew, Arabic, and Akkadian, as well as lesser-known languages such as Ugaritic and Phoenician. But we had never formally offered Ge’ez, which is not only the language of a significant civilization, but also remains the liturgical language of the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches.”

Similar to Latin, Ge’ez is no longer a spoken language and is used exclusively in religious services. To accommodate for a lack of teaching resources currently available in the language, Holmstedt said he is in the process of writing a Ge’ez textbook that will help students better grasp the grammar and vocabulary.

“I teach the course presuming no previous knowledge of any Ethiopic language,” Holmstedt said. “Even students who speak some Amharic or Tigrinye will only be ahead in terms of the alphabet, but not really the structure of the language.”

Trent University also announced the signing of an agreement with Sault College in January to expand the college’s Ojibwe language course in Anishinaabemowin. Graduates of Sault College’s Anishinaabemowin certificate program can now enter into Trent’s Indigenous bachelor of education program with advanced standing, and the opportunity to gain a teachable in Ojibwe.

Marie-Odile Junker, a linguistics professor at Carleton, said that taking a course in Indigenous languages can open up doors of possibility for students.

“A new language is a window into a new culture,” Junker said. “Learning Indigenous Canadian languages is a fantastic opportunity. We can find out more about the heritage of Canada as we know it.”

Junker said the unfamiliar nature of some languages can make it difficult for a university to gather enough resources in order to properly teach a course.

“Finding competent teachers and enough financial resources is difficult enough. Most of the language faculty are hired contacts, with a smaller set pay of about $7,000 per course. That’s not enough to live on,” Junker said. “Finding enough faculty and having enough students for enrollment is a tough task. There can be enough students for enrollment, but not the trained faculty and appropriate measures of testing.”

Junker said universities can work to bridge this gap by partnering with each other to share resources.

Carleton currently offers nine classes in commonly-used languages such as French and Spanish, as well as the Algonquin language Anishinaabemowin and the Bantu language Ki-Swahili.

According to the school of linguistic and language studies website, most of the language classes are offered at levels from beginning to advanced.

– Graphic by Christophe Young