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African language institute returns

Aug. 25, 2004
By Jennifer Cochran

If you walked through the Research and Technology Building this past summer, you might have thought you were on the continent of Africa. In the stairwell, two students greeted one another warmly in Zulu, one of the languages spoken in South Africa. In a third floor classroom, a conversation began in Tigrinya, which is spoken in Eritrea.

Nearly 70 students from across the country came to Ohio University to study African languages as part of the Summer Cooperative African Language Institute (SCALI). Students from Yale, Columbia and Michigan State Universities, as well as students from the Universities of Florida, Kansas, California, Wisconsin and more, joined Ohio University students in Athens, Ohio. For the second year, the University hosted the largest African language institute in the country through a consortium of African studies programs.

Students engaged in the study of 15 languages at SCALI. They spent four hours in class each day. The intensive seven-week institute provided the equivalent of one year of language instruction with exposure to the culture and traditions associated with the chosen language. SCALI is funded by the United States Department of Education and is offered collaboratively by the Title VI National Resource Centers for African Language and Area Studies.

W. Stephen Howard, professor of telecommunications and director of the African studies program, was the director of SCALI. Expert instructors and indigenous speakers of African languages taught the language classes.

"SCALI was a very important event," says Howard. "It signaled the largest gathering of Africanist researchers-in-training and the largest group of African professionals -- working in their professions -- in one place in the United States at one time."

Leslie Calihman Alabi, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied Yoruba in preparation for research she plans to conduct in Nigeria. She enjoyed working with Yoruba instructor Ore Yusuf, who teaches at Yale University, and she was excited to be quickly learning language skills that she already had a chance to put to work.

"The pace was such that I felt I could have some exchange with people," Alabi says, adding that although the people with whom she spoke in Yoruba spoke English as well, "to address people in their own language said a lot."

"It was great to have a community of Africanists descend on Athens for the summer. It made OU a really exciting place to study Africa," says Catherine Cutcher, SCALI coordinator.

"We were proud of this intense effort to find a place for Africa in American higher education and know that the students benefited from the African atmosphere here in Athens," says Howard. "We were particularly excited about the focus on northeast Africa with offerings in Somali, Sudanese Arabic, Amharic and Tigrinya."

Hethur McKinley studied Sudanese Arabic at Ohio University during the academic year and was excited to learn how to read and write in Sudanese Arabic at SCALI. She explained that the students who already knew how to read and write were lending a hand to those who were learning.

"I loved our class," she exclaims. "We were all actively involved with learning the language."

A graduate student in communication and development studies, McKinley had some experience with the Mandinka and Wolof languages from her service in the Peace Corps in The Gambia.

Instructors came to Ohio University from institutions across the country and the African continent to teach Akan/Twi, Hausa, Kikongo, Kinyarwanda, Luganda, Chichewa/Chinyanja, Pulaar, Somali, Sudanese Arabic, Swahili, Tigrinya, Wolof, Xhosa, Yoruba and Zulu. These instructors came from Eritrea, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Those who sponsored SCALI at Ohio University were: the African Studies Program, the Center for International Studies, the Department of Linguistics and Lifelong Learning's Community and Professional Programs.

Jennifer Cochran is assistant director for communications and graduate studies for the Center for International Studies.

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