Budget cuts push student’s language learning to the edge

By Cheih-Hsin (Jessie) Lin
UW News Lab

Samantha Irish (left) and Resat Kasaba (Photos provided by Cheih-Hsin Lin)

Samantha Irish, a UW senior who lives in Tacoma, grew up surrounded by Cambodian friends. Ever since her parents passed away, positive relationships with her Cambodian friends have been her spiritual support, helping her move on with her life.

Through her friends and their parents, Irish developed an interest in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. She also realized there is a serious lack of cultural and medical knowledge within Cambodian immigrant communities.

“I have found out from friends that they have difficulty talking with their parents about the history in Cambodia and their parents’ medical conditions,” Irish wrote in an e-mail. Therefore, she hopes to focus on the medical aspect of the language to help older Cambodian American residents translate the necessary terminology, remedies, and prescriptions.

In the past school year, Irish was enrolled with two other students in beginner-level Khmer. Recently, she was told that intermediate Khmer has been put on pause because the school can no longer afford courses with a small number of enrollees. This is one result of budget cuts passed by Congress in April 2011.

According to Reşat Kasaba, director of the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies, $800,000, or about one-third of its annual budget, is being cut. The four centers focusing on Asian regional studies will suffer more severe cuts due to the fact that their budgets are normally “proportionally higher.”

“Because of this, I will not be able to complete my minor or apply for an abroad program to Cambodia that would instruct me in advanced Cambodian,” said Irish.

Sara Van Fleet, associate director of Southeast Asian Center, one of eight National Resource Centers within the Jackson School funded by the federal government, explained that less common languages such as Khmer are usually offered on a “case-by-case” basis in which they hire part-time teachers to teach the language if they receive requests from students.

Not only is Khmer in jeopardy, according to associate directors of the East Asian and South Asia Resource Centers, but also some outreach programs, conferences, and a handful of classes in less commonly taught foreign languages, such as Burmese and Uighur, which are funded entirely by Title VI of the federal Higher Education Act. All of these programs are facing unprecedented financial difficulties.

“It is possible that our centers could be gone next year,” said Keith Snodgrass, associate director of the South Asian Resource Center.

Fleet and Snodgrass both agreed that cuts coming one step at a time may not be immediately apparent to students. Fleet said cuts to their Southeast Asia library, which has the best collection in the country, have severely impacted student and faculty research. Additionally, Snodgrass said they had to pull one teaching assistant (TA) position from another South Asian Studies course in order to hire one TA to maintain the teaching quality of the larger class in Hindi.

“If these budget cuts continue, then many students will be very seriously affected because they will not be able to take language classes, especially at the intermediate and advanced levels,” said Priti Ramamurthy, chair of the UW South Asia Program, in an e-mail.

Not knowing when intermediate-level Khmer will be available again, Irish is determined to advance her learning.

“I have looked into an online course offered by the University of Hawaii as well,” she said. “I am just waiting to see what the final decision will be at the start of September, and then I will go from there. Regardless, I plan to continue learning the language one way or another, with or without credit.”

Director Kasaba said that this year they were able to recover “some of the missing courses,” but may be unable to do so in the near future.

“For the future, students like [Irish] will have to look for other institutions where these languages are taught. Sometimes, we will also look to see if we can cooperate with other institutions.” ♦

Cheih-Hsin (Jessie) Lin is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

She can be reached through info@nwasianweekly.com.

2 Responses to “Budget cuts push student’s language learning to the edge”

  1. University language classes can be a wonderful place to learn more about your target language, meet fellow learners (who can become both study partners or even lifelong friends), and get your linguistic and cultural feet wet before (or even while) immersing yourself in a new culture and foreign tongue.

    However, such programs can also be a major impediment to the very goal you go there to achieve: learning a foreign language as quickly and efficiently as possible. This may come as a shock to those who have been conditioned to believe that classrooms are the only place, or at least the best place, to learn a language, but with 10 years of experience both learning and teaching languages, I assure you this is true.

    So although it is sad that more and schools are cutting less popular language programs, it in no way means that these languages cannot be learned to a very advanced level as long as you are motivated to learn. The modern language learners has access to an ever increasing pool of free, entertaining, authentic materials (podcasts, YouTube videos, online radio, blogs, online news sites, etc. in the target language), online language exchanges and tutoring via Skype, and of course, time spent in the country (enabled through teaching English abroad).

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