arts&sciences | Fall 2010

Wolof  Anyone?

How to learn critical languages the easy way

by Rachel Johnson

We never stop learning, and CAS’s Globally Speaking series is designed to show that immersing yourself in a new language is fun, not scary.

Professor William Waters, chair of Modern Languages & Comparative Literature, recognizes that learning a new language can be daunting, especially one that has no similarity to English. “Globally Speaking,” he says, “was conceived precisely to counter this feeling of intimidation that many people have when confronted with the sounds or script of an unfamiliar language. The fact is that even the hardest language is 100 percent learnable.”

Now the program head of Globally Speaking, Waters spent years thinking about a relaxed and inclusive language program for the whole BU community, intended specifically for people wary of taking up an unfamiliar language. In 2009, the Department of Defense awarded the University a $500,000 grant to create a branch of Project GO, a program aimed at increasing the number of ROTC cadets and midshipmen able to speak languages deemed “critical” by the government—critical because so few Americans speak them and because they are spoken in locations significant to U.S. international policy.

“The government and military already have an abundance of qualified speakers of the familiar European languages,” says Waters, “but there are desperate shortages of people in some of the less-studied languages.” Project GO-BU targets eight languages: Arabic, Chinese, Hausa, Turkish, and Wolof, and recently added Dari/Tajik, IsiXhosa, and Russian as well. Waters also says that BU’s diverse language offerings helped to win the grant: “You can count on one hand the number of other U.S. universities that can match BU’s strength in multiple African languages.” Hausa is native to Niger and northern Nigeria, IsiXhosa is an official language of South Africa, and Wolof is spoken in The Gambia and Senegal.

Out of the Project GO-BU ROTC program grew Globally Speaking, which teaches those critical languages to the wider BU community in a low-pressure environment. “Everything about Globally Speaking classes is structured to diminish anxiety,” says Waters. “No grades, no obligatory homework, and nobody will ever criticize your pronunciation—or coerce you to sing, for that matter.” ROTC students are encouraged to attend as a gateway into a new language, but classes are open to anyone with a BU ID or Alumni Card. “The pieces fit together well,” says Waters. “Dr. Giselle Khoury, head of the Arabic language program and coordinator of Project GO-BU, converted my general idea into a concrete and wonderfully successful syllabus, and teachers in other Globally Speaking languages developed their courses from Dr. Khoury’s model.” 

In Fall 2009, over 150 students participated in Globally Speaking, and in Spring 2010 more than 200 joined the program. “You have to remember that these are completely optional evening classes,” Waters says, “held at a time when people could be having dinner, studying for courses, playing sports, hanging out with friends—to have 200 people show up for something totally voluntary like this is quite extraordinary.” Faculty and staff participate as well, both as teachers and students.

“The Globally Speaking learning environment is more relaxed when there’s a critical mass of other students present too,” says Waters. “The ROTC students are themselves best served by having the Globally Speaking courses open to everyone. That openness allows the benefit of these courses to reach a much wider community. Everybody wins.”

Find out when and where to learn Arabic, Chinese, and other critical languages at