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Language Pariahs: the API Forum

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 21, 2009 2 Comments

This past Thursday, I attended Language Matters: Strengthening Asian and Pacific Islander Language Education at Berkeley. The stated aim of the event, according to the program brochure, was “to promote the creation of majors and minors for marginalized API languages like Korean, Tagalog, Thai, Tamil, Vietnamese, Khmer, etc, and to promote labor equity for language lecturers.” I came away feeling marginalized.

While three of the top ten most widely spoken languages are spoken in India (Hindi-Urdu, Bengali, and Punjabi)-a country with over 415 distinct languages– several of which are taught on campus, the panels had no representatives for any Indian languages, despite frequent reiterations that the API initiative meant to emphasize the local and global communities of API language speakers. The students in the panel spoke of Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, and Japanese. The community panel comprised of Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, of Chinese descent; Katie Joaquin who spoke of her involvement with the Filipino community; Kyung Jin Lee spoke of being involved with the Korean Community Center of the East Bay; and Prof. Elaine Kim, whose research interests lie in Korean-American writing, spoke eloquently. Prof. Ling-Chi Wang, who was very inspiring in his keynote address, also referenced primarily East Asian languages, and is identified as a “Chinese-American scholar.” The student testimonials at the end of the brochure included the following languages: Vietnamese, Tagalog, Thai, Khmer, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese.

How is it that languages like Arabic, Russian, Hindi-Urdu, Bengali, Tamil et cetera had no representations in the panels or in the student testimonials in the brochure? It’s not as if these languages don’t deal with serious issues of marginalization and insufficient support on campus. The response to Dave Malinowski‘s comment about South Asian languages towards the end of the forum was first that some Physical Education classes on campus were being halved, and then that Bengali and Punjabi have endowments, essentially that they are doing okay. Au contraire. Currently the only course for Bengali listed on the UC Berkeley schedule is: BENGALI 101B P 001 SES: Intermediate Bengali, for Spring 2009-no Beginner’s and no Advanced. There are NO Punjabi courses running at UC Berkeley at the present time. As a first language speaker of Bengali, with immediate family members who are Punjabi, and as a lover of languages, I am pained.

Prof. Kim mentioned the “hierarchy of languages” that arises in contexts of language activism. I wonder, is that what was at play here?

The response has to be multi-aspectual. The issue may not lie simply in poor outreach efforts, since the Center for South East Asian Studies and the Department of South and South East Asian Studies were listed as co-sponsors, and one imagines that word got around to students and faculty affiliated with them. It’s unclear why there was almost non-existent “take up.” My hunch is that it was a question of how the forum was framed, how it was advertised, how students of other Asian languages self-identify, and how they felt they are identified by others. The fact that the forum arose out the efforts of the Save East Asian Languages and Korean Studies program could have also shaped the organization and emphasis of the forum, and given off a sense of “closedness.” If that is the case, the stated broader vision of the forum runs counter to actual practice.

This is not to discount the fantastic work done by the organizers, and the passion that clearly united those attending and speaking at the event. This is a great cause. There are lessons to be learned here, and I sincerely hope that in the future the API initiative will work consciously and actively to recruit students and faculty from a little westwards in the continent of Asia as well. I just hope that within this movement to defeat the peripheralization of these wonderful languages because of Euro-centric foci at American universities, we don’t reproduce the structures of oppression to make pariahs out of still others among us.

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2 Responses to “Language Pariahs: the API Forum”

  1. daveski on: 23 February 2009 at 11:24 am

    I too was moved by the speeches of Elaine Kim and Ling-Chi Wang, especially. And it was great to see so many people come out for this, especially coming just a few weeks after the UCCLLT colloquium that asked us (but not enough of us) what in the world “World Language Proficiency” means.

    As someone who’s been involved off-again and on-again in this student campaign, and in other smaller, less visible campaigns that engage issues of representation and identity (like imagining and realizing the community that is this blog), I try to imagine events as steps and stages in a larger process. What that process is, is confoundingly, and wonderfully, beyond the way things are at the present, unknowable to a degree.

    And, like you say, every movement has a history(ies). The relationships between dialog and action, outreach and activism, and articulations of a cause surely change over time, and must necessarily reflect the interests and experiences and the worlds understood by the participants.

    Who, then, will participate? I hope more students will jump on board, and that they feel like they can. Knowing how hard some of the organizers have worked (and are still working), I’m sure there’s a need for more people to get involved. The APIEL Now! meeting tomorrow night (5pm on the 5th floor of Barrows) is one good way. There must be others too, already underway, other strands that can be woven together.

    The big question to me is, how do we get students, community members, the public at large to value ALL of our languages?

  2. japanese words on: 6 March 2009 at 12:21 am

    I am not surprised that there were a lot of languages not represented. Many of the colleges I visited as a counselor didn’t even have classes for a lot of the languages you mentioned. Though if it was a big event you would still think someone should be there.

    In regards to your question, I think it is very difficult indeed. A lot of people tend to learn language because of a direct benefit (easier to find employment, ability to work in another country, etc) and therefore want to focus on languages that are “profitable”.

    I think one method is to make language learning quick and simple. If someone could learn a language in a few months rather than a several years people would be more likely to try other languages.

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