Uncommon Tongues

An innovative A&S program offers independent language study in dozens of uncommon tongues.

“Haykuykuy! ¿Allillanchu? ¿Ima sutiyki?”

No, that’s not Klingon or Dothraki from the TV series Game of Thrones. That’s how to say, “Welcome! How are you? What’s your name?” in Quechua, an endangered language spoken by indigenous people in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. By some estimates, there are only eight to 10 million Quechua speakers left in the world, and Jennifer North is one of them.

North is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences double majoring in Latin American Studies and Spanish with minors in Portuguese and psychology. On top of her normal coursework, she meets twice a week with Nélida, a native Quechua speaker living in Miami, as part of the Directed Independent Language Study (DILS) program at A&S. There are no grades or course credit, explains North, but the face-to-face interaction is priceless.

“The DILS experience is extremely rich in a way that you could never get by studying from a book or online,” says North, who plans to travel to Bolivia this summer and teach English in a Quechua-speaking village. “To be able to get a first-person perspective from somebody who spoke Quechua as a child, and for her to talk about the culture and customs, it becomes much more than just language study.”

There are currently 25 different languages offered through DILS including Thai, Russian, Egyptian Arabic, Korean and Hindi. The goal of the program, which launched in 2009 with only two languages, is to offer free small-group instruction to both undergraduate and graduate students in languages not offered by the University of Miami. Applications are up every semester, and DILS has proven a valuable resource for ambitious UM students who want to conduct research abroad or pursue a career in diplomacy or international business.

Each DILS language program is limited to four or five students, explains program director Maria Kosinski. Students meet in small groups with a native speaker (called a Language Partner) twice a week, just like Jennifer North and Nélida. Kosinski admits that finding native speakers of languages like Croatian and Swahili often requires “detective work,” even in diverse Miami. If there are no local options, she says, there’s always Skype.

Kosinski works with language professors from other colleges and universities to develop a rigorous, self-paced curriculum that meets each student’s specific language goals. At the end of the semester, DILS students take an oral exam delivered by the same language professors who developed the curriculum. There are no grades, but the students’ language study is noted on their transcript. It’s a lot of work and requires a high level of independent motivation, but the results, says Kosinski, have been remarkable.

Andrew Szarejko ’12 is a great example. After studying abroad in Turkey, the political science and international studies major returned to Miami eager to improve his language skills. By studying Turkish through DILS, Szarejko won a coveted Critical Language Scholarship — only 631 were awarded in 2012 by the U.S. Department of State — to return to Turkey after graduation. The experience will move Szarejko one step closer to his ultimate goal of working as a foreign representative of the U.S. government.

Other DILS undergraduates include a biology major learning Vietnamese to prepare for research opportunities abroad; an art history major studying Persian/Farsi to conduct research on a Persian painting; and a pre-med student studying Russian to get ready for an internship in Russia after graduation. Still other DILS students have studied Polish to apply for Fulbright scholarships and Korean to attend a music conservatory in Seoul.

Kosinski says that participation in the DILS program clearly helps students shape their academic and career goals, increases opportunities for study and fieldwork abroad, and encourages rewarding intercultural experiences that impact their lives well past graduation.

“By definition, students who want to study a language for which we don’t offer credit are self-driven and independent,” says DILS director Kosinski, but she is constantly impressed by the effort and enthusiasm of DILS participants. “It is a very satisfying program to run because the students are so amazing.”

DILS is free and open to all UM students. Learn more about Directed Independent Language Study or contact program director Maria Kosinski directly at mkosinski@miami.edu.

August 15, 2013