Language and culture are inseparable. The language we speak is a part of who we are, and to truly understand another’s world, knowing the tongue they speak, listen, and breathe in is a necessity. In an increasingly globalizing and homogenizing world, we must preserve diversity, linguistic and otherwise.
Many of Columbia’s students champion such views, and the Columbia Student Language Exchange (SLE) puts them to practice. Columbia SLE is our university’s chapter of the Student Language Exchange, a national non-profit organization dedicated to creating language and cultural learning opportunities for languages not traditionally offered in university curricula in a fun, low-stress environment for American undergraduates.
The Student Language Exchange began at Brown University with the goal of engaging students linguistically and culturally with typically underrepresented cultures. The organization has grown to include Brown, Brandeis, Tufts, and now Columbia, where it has stayed true to its mission. This semester Columbia SLE will be offering two courses taught by trained student fellows who are native speakers in their respective languages. SLE courses have no homework and while they are not for credit, they are a space on campus for students to engage in free language-learning opportunities. The only prerequisite is an interest in learning about a new language and culture.
For Spring 2015, SLE is currently offering a course in Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese spoken by over sixty million worldwide. A user of the Chinese orthographical system, Cantonese is no cakewalk, but the reward of mastering six tones should make Cantonese a worthwhile endeavor. Cantonese is the most spoken Chinese dialect in the United States, with nearly three million speakers.
Before SLE came to campus last semester, Columbia students had to trek down to NYU to take it. Skip the subway ride— SLE Cantonese takes place on Thursdays at 7PM in Hamilton 306. The language just happens to be the main tongue of downtown’s Chinatown, and Cantonese cuisine is the biggest culinary influence in the western “Chinese food” scene.
SLE is also offering a course in Bulgarian. With seven million speakers, it is the official language of Bulgaria and an official language of the EU. (This is an instant appeal to all the budding Slavicists out there!) Bulgarian, like Russian, is a Slavic language, but without all those damned noun declensions. And if you have ever woken up thinking, “Wow, there aren’t enough suffixes on my definite articles,” then Bulgarian might just be for you. Bulgarian also happens to be the language of a dynamic Balkan nation with a rich history and culture with significant Greek, Ottoman, and Soviet influences—it has a thousand-year-old literary history. Not too shabby for a language with no infinitives! Check it out Saturdays at 4:40 PM in Hamilton 315.