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Rare languages offer cultural insight

When Melissa Arnold-Martinez moved to Rwanda to do microfinance work, she thought her fluent French would be more than enough to communicate in the former French colony.

And it was-that is, until she left the cities and headed to work in the villages where most of the country's population still lives.

There, "bonjour" and "s'il vous plait" gave way to "mwaramutse" and "ahsante sana" and Arnold-Martinez, a second-year graduate student in the Center for International Development, struggled to communicate in Kinyarwanda-the first language of most rural Rwandans.

"It definitely impacted my work," she said. "I feel like I could have done so much more if I had spoken the Rwandan dialects."

With the experience still fresh in her mind, Arnold-Martinez-whose research at Duke concentrates on French-speaking Africa-enrolled last Fall in Wolof, a western African language that she believes will make her study of the region more personal.

Arnold-Martinez is not the only one interested in such studies. An ambitious group of Duke students are taking languages-ranging from Romanian to dialects of Mayan-whose country of origin may be difficult for many of their peers to locate on a world map.

Most of Duke's languages are taught every year, but many of the rarer languages are offered on a rotating schedule or whenever professors are available to teach them. As a result, languages drop in and out of the course catalog.

In the past decade, a wide spectrum of languages-including Hungarian, Yiddish, Swahili and Persian-have been offered for one semester or more, according to the Office of the University Registrar. Most of these uncommon language classes have no more than five students, said Dana Cojocaru, a visiting assistant professor of Russian Language and Literature who teaches Romanian.

The benefits of less-common languages are not always obvious to outsiders, but students take them for more than curricular requirements, Cojocaru said. Languages not only improve cognitive skills but also provide a window into a unique foreign culture, she added.

"Often it comes down to wanting a closer connection to a region," said Natalie Hartman, associate director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

This Spring, the chatter coming from the Languages Building includes not only Spanish, Italian and Chinese, but Turkish, Wolof and Polish as well. And while many students scramble for space in popular language courses, those who have taken less-common languages spoke fondly of small, personalized classes.

Arnold-Martinez's Wolof course has four students. Sarah Carpenter, Trinity '04, said she remembers her intermediate Turkish classmates being invited to their professor's house for a Turkish dinner and a game of backgammon.

"I think with 'unusual languages' it's important to match the whole country, culture and people to the language in order to have friends, family and sometimes even yourself better appreciate why you have chosen this language," she wrote in an e-mail from Istanbul, where she now lives.

Bouna Ndiaye, an instructor of Asian and African Languages and Literature who teaches Wolof, said he does not know how long the University will continue to offer his class, but he said he felt it served an important purpose.

"I think it's a good thing for [Americans] to finally accept that there are parts of the world that aren't America," he said. "And I don't think they should wait until there's a bomb exploding somewhere to try and understand that country's language and culture."

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