While Duke’s ties to Madagascar may best be known for the University’s decades of work with the Lemur Center, Duke has recently begun expanding its engagement with the island nation through its language courses in Malagasy, one of its two official languages. Building on the initial Malagasy course introduced in fall 2022, Duke will offer an intermediate course for the first time in fall 2023.
“The thing that came to mind was just that, if I’m going to go do research in another country, and I currently don’t speak the languages that that country does, I better learn then,” said Caroline Shearer, a third-year doctoral candidate in the department of evolutionary anthropology who conducts research in the region.
Madagascar regulations mandate foreign researchers to collaborate with Malagasy researchers that are at a similar career stage, according to Shearer. These factors, along with the language's unique word order and syntax, made Shearer interested in the language.
That opportunity came when Shearer met Camille DeSisto, a fourth-year doctoral candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment. DeSisto mentioned that she had just been starting a group to float the idea of learning Malagasy.
“I was like, oh, that sounds like a really good opportunity,” Shearer said. “It made sense to learn the language that is more day to day — people in Madagascar speak this as [their] regular language.”
Madagascar’s other official language, French, was brought to the island by French colonialists and is now spoken by less than a quarter of the population. DeSisto noted that although many of her collaborators that were affiliated with academic institutions spoke French, many non-affiliated collaborators didn’t.
“Collaborating with scientists, engaging with local stakeholders, conducting ethical, safe fieldwork … I think it’s really important,” DeSisto said. “For example, members of the local forest management organizations, local people that are really brilliant collaborators, do not speak French or English.”
After securing a grant from Duke’s Graduate Working Group on Global Issues, DeSisto and Shearer’s journey to learn Malagasy began with Zoom lessons by Lôlô Henri Rafidiniaina, the founder of Malagasy Lessons for Expats, who DeSisto’s friend had recommended. Eventually, the funding from the grant dried out.
“We were trying to find another way to support learning the language because there’s not that many resources for learning Malagasy,” Shearer said. “I mean, we were doing [it] with someone in Madagascar to learn Malagasy.”
While browsing for opportunities online, Shearer stumbled upon the Partnership for Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL) through Duke’s Language Outreach Initiatives, which partners with the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University to “offer courses in languages not often taught in the Western academic curriculum.”
Fortunately for Shearer, the LCTL had funding available for an African language course, and the rest was history. The LCTL now offers courses in Haitian Creole, Turkish, Swahili, K’iche’ Maya — and Malagasy. Tendry Randriamanana, a native Malagasy speaker, was recruited as the instructor.
In fall 2022 and spring 2023, six doctoral candidates completed the two introductory courses in Malagasy, according to Shearer. Most of these students were conducting research in fields related to evolutionary anthropology or ecology.
“I think my research has definitely improved because my research is so collaborative and would not be possible without my Malagasy colleagues and collaborators and being able to speak Malagasy,” DeSisto said.
In the upcoming fall 2023 and spring 2024 semesters, the two introductory courses, MALAGASY 101/701 and MALAGASY 102/702, will be offered again. An intermediate course, MALAGASY 203/703, will be offered for the first time. As part of the LCTL, Duke’s Malagasy courses will also be offered to students at Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia for the first time.
“Honestly, it was one of the most forgiving languages to learn,” Shearer said. “When you first learn Malagasy, it almost sucks you in. It’s so great to learn.”
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