Students taking basic foreign languages at Kansas University aren’t just greeting each other with an “hola” in Spanish or a “bonjour” in French, they’re also saying “pozdrav” in Croatian and “yaxshimusiz” in Uighur.
KU offers nearly 40 languages, a high number for a state university, said LeaMarie Bistak Herron, assistant director of grant development for KU’s Center of Global and International Studies.
That means KU is one of the few places in the country you can take classes in Uighur, for example. That’s pronounced “WEE-gur” by most Americans and “ooey-GHUR” by most Uighurs.
It’s spoken by nearly 10 million people in China’s Xinjiang region in the northwest part of the country.
And, yes, sometimes the number of students interested in taking the language can be rather small, said Mahire Yakup, a native Uighur speaker and linguistics doctoral student who serves in a part-time role as KU’s sole Uighur instructor.
This semester, she’s teaching two students in the basic Uighur course and two students in the intermediate Uighur course.
One of the students studying Uighur this semester is Daniel McCarville, a master’s student studying political science from McCook, Neb.
He got his undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and became interested in the Central Asia region.
“I came to KU because they teach Uighur,” he said.
It’s similar to many other languages in the region, including Uzbek and Kyrgyz, so he was interested in getting a leg up on other potential candidates in his desired job field in international economics.
Though in some states, like nearby Missouri, programs with small amounts of degree participants have been targeted for potential cuts, McCarville said he didn’t see a language like Uighur as a potential area of savings for KU.
“Even if it is just two students” in the class, he said, “you’ve got two students with very unusual skills for a very low cost.”
He was also drawn to the language because it’s spoken by a group of people who don’t necessarily wield a lot of political power.
“You have to know how to speak with and understand the everyday person,” he said. “Not the person who’s running the country.”
Many of the languages taught are in demand from the federal government, said Leslie vonHolten, outreach coordinator for KU’s Center for Global and International Studies. She pointed to a BBC article that reported on six Chinese Uighur prisoners who were detained in Guantanamo Bay.
Many of the languages are difficult to find taught in other universities, too, she said. Yakup, the Uighur instructor at KU, said she thought the only other university to offer Uighur in the United States was the University of Indiana.
The languages are supported by KU’s Ermal Garinger Academic Resource Center in Wescoe Hall, where students can listen to recordings in a variety of languages, record themselves speaking on tape for class assignments and view lectures from another institution in conference rooms wired for videoconferencing.
The Ermal Garinger center also sponsored a “language buffet” this year for students interested in various languages. Students visited teachers of the many offerings — everything from Korean to Wolof — who gave five-minute presentations that showed off their language and culture.
The center also maintains a website at languages.ku.edu that has information on all the languages offered at KU.
Taking an esoteric foreign language can pay off, too, for students. KU receives Title VI funding from the federal government’s Department of Education for scholarships for students taking languages that are in demand for reasons like national security.
Undergraduates can earn a one-year fellowship that pays $10,000 for tuition and $5,000 in living expenses, and graduate students can have their entire tuition paid for and receive a $15,000 stipend for living expenses.
“This is a place where KU is grouped with universities like Harvard, Michigan, Berkeley and Indiana,” Herron said.