Emory Report
March 2, 2009
Volume 61, Number 22



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March 2
, 2009
From Twi to Thai, SILS fills languages gap

By Carol Clark

Laura Quaynor is studying how schools in non-Western democracies prepare students for civic roles. Much of her work centers on Ghana, where an indigenous tongue is Twi (pronounced “twee”).

“English is the official language, but Twi is what the students speak to each other,” says Quaynor, a Ph.D. candidate. “As a Western researcher, I’m already at a disadvantage, when it comes to getting a complete picture. It’s important for me to understand the unofficial dialogue that’s going on.”

She applied to the Structured Independent Language Study Program (SILS), and was accepted. SILS is designed for students who need to study languages that are not on Emory’s curriculum. The program is run by the Emory College Language Center, with the support of the Race and Difference Initiative.

SILS debuted last fall with nine students studying five languages, and has now expanded to 26 students and nine languages: American Sign Language, Amharic, Bengali, Nepali, Serbo-Croatian, Swahili, Thai, Turkish and Twi.

Some students have already moved beyond the introductory level: Quaynor and another graduate student are now studying intermediate Twi.

“When more people find out about the program, I think the demand is going to go through the roof,” says Marjorie Pak, SILS director and a lecturer in linguistics.

SILS is flexible — the languages taught depend upon the changing needs of students. Any full-time student throughout the University may apply, although preference is giving to applicants who need to learn a particular language due to an upcoming research or service project.

A native speaker meets with the students two hours a week, to guide them through exercises tailored to their program of study.

Joshua Osei, a native of Ghana now working as a computer analyst in Atlanta, is the Twi language partner. “He’s very patient and has familial connections to various towns in Ghana, so he’s also helping me understand the culture,” Quaynor says. “Every Ghanaian I’ve met is thrilled that I’m learning their language. It shows the respect that you have for a place, when you are willing to take that time.”

SILS students follow a syllabus developed by a college-level instructor of their target language, who also administers an oral exam at the end of the semester. The ideal candidate for the program must be highly self-motivated, Pak says, since the bulk of learning is done on the student’s own time.

The course is non-credit, but students who pass the final exam receive a certificate. Quaynor expects the language certificate will make her more competitive for grants and fellowships to pursue her studies in Africa.
“I wish a program like this was available when I was a student,” says Pak. She speaks French, Spanish, German and some Korean. As a graduate student, she studied Luganda — a major language of Uganda — and Huave, which is spoken by a few thousand people living in fishing villages along the southeastern coast of Mexico.

As a linguist, she has never met a language she didn’t love, and finds it hard to single out one as her favorite. “That’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is,” Pak says. “I couldn’t answer that question because it would make all the other languages feel bad.”

The preliminary deadline to apply for next fall’s SILS program is April 29. Applications will also be accepted just before the fall semester, but Pak wants to receive as many requests as possible early, to provide more time to line up language partners and examiners. For more information, visit http://cet.emory.edu/eclc/sils.cfm.