Duke, UVA Join Forces to Offer Creole, Tibetan Language Courses

Duke and the University of Virginia are doing a swap, offering their lesser-taught language to each other via distance technology.

Part of the Engaging Haiti Series

Starting this fall, Duke students can take Tibetan classes taught at the University of Virginia, part of a new distance learning venture aimed at broadening the availability of low-visibility languages.

In exchange, Duke will offer its Creole language courses to students at UVA, a one-to-one swap with little cost to either university, officials say. Duke students will earn Duke credit for the UVA course and vice versa, said Laurie Patton, dean of Duke's Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.

"We're protecting languages that are very much a part of our global culture but aren't necessarily the first you would take in a Western academic curriculum," Patton said. "We aren't replacing the face-to-face teaching of more commonly taught languages. We are protecting the languages that, in this economic climate, might not otherwise be sustained."

Eventually, Duke officials hope to expand the program to other languages and include other interested universities.

Courses will be taught in classrooms that have Cisco TelePresence technology, a high-quality video conferencing system crucial to the success of this venture, said Gil Merkx, Duke's director of international and area studies.

"It makes you feel like you're in the same room, which is critical for foreign language teaching," he said.

Duke and UVA will offer three semesters of instruction in their respective languages to satisfy language requirements, Merkx added.

At Duke, Creole language courses have gained a foothold due to the success of the Haiti Lab, a 3-year-old Franklin Humanities Center initiative that has leveraged the expertise of several Duke scholars in history, law, language, Romance Studies and other areas.

Duke teaches Haitian Creole, one of several versions spoken all over the world, particularly in the Caribbean and parts of the Indian Ocean.

In the United States, it was long spoken in New Orleans, though it has become less common there in recent decades.

At UVA, the Tibetan Center was founded in 2008 to examine that language and culture. The language is spoken in Tibet, Nepal, parts of China and the Ladakh region of India.

"Less commonly taught languages are no less important for being infrequently taught," said Meredith Jung-En Woo, UVA's Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts & Sciences. "It is through new languages that we gain the entree to other cultures. Esoteric as some of these cultures may appear, in studying them we also learn new truths about our culture and ourselves."

Neither language is taught broadly at American universities. Just 135 American college students enrolled in Creole courses in 2009, according to the most recent data from the Modern Language Association. Only 109 students took Tibetan that year, according to the same data.

Just a handful of students enroll in any one Creole course at Duke, and officials don’t expect Duke students to overrun the UVA Tibetan courses, either. But that isn't the point, said Patton, the Duke Arts & Sciences dean.

"These languages aren't obscure to the people who speak them and the cultures who sustain them; they're only obscure in the United States," she said. "This is an example of the type of intellectual leadership universities can offer that is cost effective and therefore isn't driven only by the single criteria of enrollment."