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Swahili to Somali - African Languages Program Grows

Feb. 17, 2006
By Melissa Evans

How do you say "please" in Pulaar? Can you ask the time in Tigrinya? Thanks to the growing African languages program at Ohio University, students can learn to speak, write and understand these and other languages from the world's second-most populous continent.

Home to one of only nine federally-funded Nation Resource Centers for African Studies, Ohio University has increased the number of African languages it offers from only two languages five years ago to 10 this year. Students can choose from Akan, Amharic, Arabic, Kikuyu, Pulaar, Sudanese Arabic, Swahili, Tigrinya, Wolof and Somali, which is not taught at any other university in the United States.

 Women, Gender and Sport in Africa

Ohio University's Institute for the African Child will host the third annual Sports and Africa Symposium Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24 and 25.

This year's conference, "Women, Gender and Sport in Africa," will consider female athletes in Muslim societies, women's national teams, traditional female sports, masculinity, sport and gender and identity formation, sports as a microcosm of gender inequity, and sports as a tool of female self-empowerment, among other topics.

The symposium will kick off with a keynote address by Carol Bellamy on Friday, Feb. 24. Bellamy, former executive director of UNICEF, is currently president and CEO of World Learning and President of the School of International Learning.

The Institute for the African Child is a multi-disciplinary effort to support teachings, service and research that consider children in Africa's socioeconomic progress.

To learn more about the conference, visit www.ohiou.edu/sportsafrica/womengender/.

The hallmark of Ohio University's African languages program is having faculty members that are native speakers of the languages and know how to teach foreign languages.

"We really have trained teachers teaching these languages and this is a unique feature," said Stephen Howard, director of Ohio University's African Studies program. "We don't just get somebody whose grandmother was Polish and have them teach Polish. We look for people who can teach."

Because the professors are native speakers of the languages, students learn about African culture in addition to learning languages.

"Society is embedded in language; ways of life are embedded in language," said Ghirmai Negash, assistant director of Ohio University's Institute for the African Child. "Without understanding the native language, you can't appreciate the literature and the culture."

And understanding the culture is important. "Language is everything," said Fanta Diamanka, a native of Senegal and instructor of Pulaar and Wolof at Ohio University. "If you lose the language you lose the culture. If we lose our culture, we won't develop."

The African language courses are open to undergraduates and graduates in any major, though only Swahili currently counts toward the language requirements for undergraduates in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Besides African studies majors, the classes are popular among students studying education and health-related fields, Howard said. Understanding African languages is important for students planning for or doing research in African history, literature and anthropology, Negash said.

Other participants in Ohio University's African language courses are those involved in the Foreign Languages and Area Studies Fellowship. FLAS Fellowships are awarded to graduate students who demonstrate superb academic achievement and a commitment to the study of African languages and area studies.

Patrick Coonan is a FLAS Fellow studying International Development. He recently served in the Peace Corps in Cape Verde, where he learned to speak Crioulo. Now at Ohio University, Coonan is studying Wolof. He hopes to return to West Africa to work on development projects when he graduates this spring.

"I hope to find a job in Dakar (Senegal) when I am done with my MAIA (Master of Arts in International Affairs) degree," he said. "It would give me a great opportunity to live in a location where I can expand my Wolof and Crioulo language skills."

Ohio University has been involved in teaching African languages since the early 1960s.

"The government has put a lot of money into programs that teach languages from different parts of the world," Howard said. It is because of the help of grants from the United States Department of Education that Ohio University has been able to bring African languages to its students.

"We live in a complicated world," Howard explained. "There are more than 2,000 languages spoken in Africa, so with the 10 (languages) we teach we're not even scratching the surface; we're not even blowing on the surface. It's a small attempt but I think one that the African people are pleased with and excited about, too."

The African languages program that Ohio University offers is just one part of the university's African Studies program.

"We have an M.A. program, a B.A. program, the Institute for the African Child. There's our African Languages program, and there's the national research program for African studies," Howard said. "African studies is so big here that there are a number of things going on."

Melissa Evans is a student writer with University Communications and Marketing.

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Published: Feb 17, 2006 12:00:00 AM
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