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Students should be interested in lesser-known languages



The Slavic department of IU put on its annual talent show March 26. I have taken part in the event twice, once for my Russian 202 class and this year for my Ukrainian 102 class. 

Sixteen acts performed songs, presented semester projects, film projects or translated works of art to share with the audience.

Students came from five levels of Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian classes. Throughout the talent show, though, I noticed something that had been bothering me throughout my time studying Ukrainian at IU. Out of the 16 acts, two of them were done by Ukrainian classes. While there are only two active Ukrainian classes this semester, it was still surprising compared to all of the overlapping acts done by the other languages. 

I had planned on writing this opinionated pitch for taking Ukrainian classes all semester, but this event was specifically what kick-started my interview process and the information I researched the rest of the spring semester.

***

I began studying at Indiana University in fall 2014. Starting as an astronomy major, I was required to take one of the following languages — French, Spanish, German or Russian. 

After taking three years of Russian language, I felt a calling to move to another Slavic language. My time with Russian had become stagnant and I needed a refreshing new language to study. At the time, it felt natural to transition from Russian to Ukrainian because they seemed like similar languages to me. 

What I didn’t know, was that I was the only actual student taking Ukrainian 1. I had one classmate, but he was a graduate student auditing the course and, therefore, did not count on grade distribution like I did. 

While this was a pleasant surprise, it turned out to be a big misfortune for the Ukrainian language department. At the beginning of my second semester studying Ukrainian, I learned since we were both graduating this year, there was the possibility of no intermediate level for the language. 

So I began to work with the faculty and my singular classmate to find a way to bring more attention to the Ukrainian language department, as well as other lesser-known languages at IU. 

***

In order to figure out the best way to create awareness and write a proper take on it, I interviewed both of my Ukrainian professors, Svitlana Melnyk and Sofiya Asher, and my classmate, Brett Donahoe. 

As well as interviewing members of the department, I attended two events focused on marketing for the department and Ukrainian language itself. 

We identified a few reasons as to why the department felt it wasn’t garnering any attention.

1. IU is not requiring every major to take a language course, and those who are required can replace it with a world culture course. 

2. Ukrainian as a language is overshadowed by not only Russian, but all of the other lesser-known languages at IU. 

3. Before last year, Ukrainian only had a beginner level course, thus failing to fulfill the language requirement of four semesters.

4. Students might think that learning Ukrainian would be a waste of time if there is no direct career result.

As of right now, the College of Arts and Sciences, Jacobs School of Music, School of Art, Architecture and Design and School of Education are the only schools within IU that require students to take a series of foreign language courses. 

COAS requires four semesters of foreign language. Students can often replace their foreign language credits with a world culture class.

When discussing this predicament, Asher commented she frequently loses students after two years in Polish and Russian because “other major requirements deter students from pursuing for longer.” 

The Slavic Department at IU decided one way it could encourage enrollment would be to expand Ukrainian language past beginner level so a student could fulfill their language requirement with all four semesters. 

“With the requirement of four semesters for a world language, many students avoid a language that only offers one year, so Russian and East European Institute decided to expand it to two based on demand," Asher said. "There won't be a second year next year if the Summer Language Workshop falls through this summer. The department believes in showing demand for courses in order to create more, but without the available course, no one will demand it because they don't know it exists. This creates a vicious cycle."

This is exactly why I felt drawn to sharing why it is important to enroll in lesser-known languages. The languages can never thrive if there is no interest, and then they could be deemed unimportant to the department. Luckily for IU, the Russian and East European Institute (REEI) has dedicated professors who are willing to put in extra time to bring awareness and pull students in.

Besides the lack of foreign language requirements for majors, both Asher and Melnyk said Ukrainian is overshadowed by the Russian language due to its geopolitical relevancy, size and the number of countries which still speak Russian in the post-Soviet era. 

Russian is an official language in Ukraine and other eastern European and central European nations.  Unfortunately, the amount of people who speak Ukrainian in Ukraine is declining as well, due to increasing demands in the work place to speak Russian.

In response to this, Melnyk argued Ukrainian is more important than ever, especially after the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, the Crimean invasions and the development of new language policy in Ukraine with the goal of making Ukrainian the most widely spoken language in the country.

NPR released its world equality report and put Ukraine in the position of having the most level income equality in the world. On a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being totally unequal pay, Ukraine scored a 26. The United States scored a 41.

In 2014, Ukrainian was added to the Pentagon’s list of priority languages, and the Pentagon began seeking employees who could speak the language and assist in foreign affairs. 

Being able to teach Ukrainian as a language gives the opportunity to teach about the country and its culture. This gives Asher and Melnyk a chance to dispel stereotypes while answering genuine questions about the culture that are best explained through the native language. 

For me, learning about culture through language has been one of my favorite experiences at IU. 

I loved learning about Russian culture and how it has changed, as well as how the language has changed, and that love translated to Ukrainian. 

My time spent studying Ukrainian has been fabulous and exciting. The one perk of being part of such a small department is that I basically get private tutoring sessions, with the exception of my unofficial-classmate Donahoe.

Donahoe is a Masters student at IU studying Slavic Linguistics. He started with Russian and has since learned Ukrainian, Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian while at IU. 

We discussed the importance of studying multiple languages for graduate school prospects. Most undergraduate students don’t know graduate programs want students to come into the next level of education with a second foreign language already in progress. 

When asking Donahoe about his experience learning Ukrainian this past year, he had many wonderful things to say. 

“I accomplished my goals for learning Ukrainian," Donahoe said. "I can interact with authentic texts in the language, and expanded my sphere of cultures and interests."

My intrigue in Ukrainian and other Slavic languages came from ancestral history. I have a long family lineage from the eastern part of Europe, specifically the Slavic regions. When figuring out which language to pursue next, I was debating between Ukrainian and Polish — both strongly influenced by my heritage — but Melnyk encouraged and convinced me to take Ukrainian. 

The idea of heritage was the focus of one of the few presentations I saw from Benjamin Shultz’s Creativity and Communication 344 marketing class. The Slavic department at IU asked the class to figure out a marketing scheme to better attract students to lesser-known languages, similar to my own project. 

The two tactics I thought would really help the department were what I will call the "Ancestry" approach and the "Cultural Week" approach.

The "Ancestry" approach is based on the usage of Ancestry.com and its tools allowing users to learn a base knowledge of their heritage. During the presentation, I learned IU offers a library version of Ancestry.com, which gives a quick walkthrough of ancestry to interest users in a full package. 

The marketing group suggested using this tool during New Student Orientation activities to encourage students to take Slavic language classes based off their heritage. If this didn’t yield a Slavic heritage for students, they were still getting involved in the department by signing up for the email list. 

Because of my Russian and Ukrainian heritage, I thought this would be a great tactic for incoming freshmen to discover new language courses. Ukrainian-Americans may only make up 0.3% of the total American population, as of the 2000 census, but that combined with the number of American families who have been here for a few generations, would lead to a decent number of students who could enroll in Ukrainian language. 

The "Cultural Week" approach focuses on exactly what it sounds like — a Slavic Cultural Week at the beginning of the semester to introduce lesser-known languages to the student population.

Different days of the week would focus on different languages, such as Ukrainian, Polish, Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian. The event would also advertise for the department and pass out material goodies based on participation in culture-specific activities. While this doesn’t necessarily grab freshmen right before they can sign up for classes, it at least makes students more aware of the existence of the Slavic Department, outside of Russian. 

The last marketing presentation I listened to was in Melnyk’s Ukrainian culture class, which serves as an advertisement itself. The marketing idea was geared towards taking advantage of the set up of the class so students who were learning about Ukrainian culture may be inclined to learn the language as well. 

***

The history of Ukrainian language at IU is not a long one. It began as intensive linguistic courses that usually collaborated with Russian language classes.

At first, Ukrainian classes were only offered to graduate students. This began in 1959. From this, it developed into a series of courses for beginner-level Ukrainian language around 1963. However, students had to have had a different prior Slavic language to take the course.

This course did not last for long due to a lack of interest, and because of a lack of faculty members who could speak and teach Ukrainian. It ended in 1986. 

Ukraine wasn't offered again until 2006. This did not last for long either, and it hopefully became a permanent language at IU in 2015. 

Between the years of 2009 and 2015, students could take a class called “Ukrainian Through Russian,” which was similar to the original iteration of the course in the 1960s. 

In order to take a Ukrainian class without any prerequisites, it had to be done during the Summer Language Program, which Melnyk led for four years. 

The instability of Ukrainian language at IU is why faculty members and students alike are worried about the future of the program. 

I could have never imagined I was stepping into such a unique program when I began studying Ukrainian last semester, but I wouldn’t change my experience for anything.

Students can be introduced to Ukrainian culture through classes, group activities and language table. Ukrainian Table meets every Friday during the school year at Runcible Spoon. There is the Ukrainian Student Organization, made up of past Ukrainian students and those interested in the culture.

The department is hoping to create incentives to draw in students, such as a $500 scholarship for anyone interested in Ukrainian.

I have seen the hard work of REEI faculty members trying to create more interest in these lesser-known languages and I know how much it would mean to them to see the department flourish. 

While the history of Ukrainian language at IU is not a long one, we desperately want to see it have a long future. 

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