Illustration: Andrea Pippins

When it came to language courses, the Department of African Cultural Studies had a numbers problem.

More than 2,000 languages are spoken across Africa, yet the department could teach only four or five each semester. The common offerings were Yorùbá, Swahili, Arabic and Zulu, depending on which instructors were available. But some students need to learn infrequently taught languages to aid in their research or learn the core four at higher levels than can be regularly offered.

While the department was hardly alone in facing this challenge, it created an innovative solution, and a new grant is allowing two faculty members to study it and eventually share their insights with others.

In 2013, Katrina Daly Thompson, Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities and director of the doctoral program in second language acquisition, was hired to run the African Languages Program and redesigned it seeking to answer the question, “With limited resources, how do we maximize the number of languages students can learn and ensure that they reach high levels of proficiency?”

The following year, Thompson launched the Multilanguage Seminar, a two-semester course that sets up students — mostly graduate students, plus a few highly motivated undergrads — to teach themselves a language. They create self-directed learning plans and rely on peers as well as expert speakers for support.

“Students share weekly updates, feedback and encouragement,” says Thompson. They use Slack to stay in touch, and the online communication platform also lets them read messages — and glean tips and resources — from past students who studied the language they’re learning.

Those messages also serve as a rich database representing the nearly 80 students who have independently studied more than 20 African (and a few Southeast Asian) languages over the past 10 years.

Thompson and Adeola Agoke, who has directed the African Languages Program since 2019, are now digging into the data using a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s International Research and Studies Program, which is providing them with over $304,000 to support three years of research in self-instruction in less commonly taught languages.

After analyzing the data, Thompson and Agoke will share their findings through a workshop and a book, with the goal of helping other units and institutions expand their language offerings.

“Innovation really is key here,” Agoke says, “and what our research does is call attention to new ways of doing things.”

And if others can utilize this new approach, there’s no limit to the languages that could be learned.

“We’re really trying to better understand how students can be autonomous learners and lifelong learners,” Thompson says. “We’d like to see more people be able to learn more languages to high proficiency levels.”

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