Global communications: U-M offers Punjabi, Swahili and dozens of other languages

March 19, 2012

ANN ARBOR—Seth Soderborg got interested in Indonesia two years ago when he was looking at a list of the world’s most populous nations and noticed it was ranked No. 4, just behind the United States.

The political science major really got intrigued when he found out the U.S. government considers Indonesian to be a “critical language” that’s in high demand but spoken by few Americans.

“I found out it wasn’t a hard language to learn so I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?'” said Soderborg, who hopes the language will give him an edge when he pursues a government career.

Soderborg is one of many students taking advantage of the University of Michigan’s wide selection of courses in so-called “less commonly taught languages.” These are languages other than English, German, French and Spanish.

U-M has long been a great place for linguistically adventurous students. Classes are offered in more than 65 languages, from Polish and Urdu to Filipino, Punjabi and Swahili. The impressive variety, which few other universities offer, is another example of U-M’s commitment to providing a global education.

Students who study less commonly taught languages have a unique experience because the class sizes are usually small, giving them plenty of opportunities to speak, said Agustini, who teaches Indonesian and is the director of U-M’s Southeast Asian Language Program. A variety of financial aid is also available to the students, she said.

“I tell my students that they are very lucky here,” said Agustini, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

Traditionally, the less commonly taught languages were funded by the federal government, under a Department of Education program called Title VI. The idea was that it was important for America’s national security and competitiveness for students to learn the critical languages.

But last year, Congress cut Title VI funding by 47 percent, forcing many language programs to find new sources of financial support.

Terry McDonald, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, is committed to preserving the languages and has launched an initiative to raise endowment support for them, said Klementina Sula. Sula is working on a special project for the dean focused on funding languages, especially those affected by Title VI cuts.

“We do want to make sure the University of Michigan remains a full-language institution,” she said.

“We at LSA Development are working to raise $750,000 for each language, and that will ensure that these languages will be forever taught at the University of Michigan,” she said.

U-M alum Michael Dunne, who speaks Mandarin and Thai, believes it’s vital for the university to continue teaching the languages because they’re essential tools for doing business in this era of increasing globalization.

The Detroit native earned an MBA as well as an M.A. in Chinese language and literature in 1990 before moving to Asia to begin a career in the automotive industry. He recently published a book, “American Wheels, Chinese Roads: The Story of General Motors in China.”

He said he had no idea U-M offered courses in Thai until one of his business professors, Linda Y.C. Lim, advised him to study the language.

Dunne said Lim told him, “You’ve mastered Chinese. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Asia is a big place. Why not use some time to develop a second language?”

During his first year of Thai, only five people were in the class, said Dunne, who also earned a master’s degree in Southeast Asian studies.

“When I told people I was studying Thai, they would say, ‘Oh great, how soon will you go to Taiwan?’ There was no knowledge of Thailand. It wasn’t even on the map,” said Dunne, president of Dunne & Company, an auto consulting firm.

After getting his MBA, Dunne went to Thailand and was contacted by Chrysler, which was having difficulty securing Thai government approvals to manufacture Jeeps in the country. Chrysler’s representative was an Australian who couldn’t speak Thai.

“When the Chrysler people connected with me and we met Thai government officials together, I would start the meetings in Thai and end them in Thai, and somehow that made all the difference,” Dunne said.

It was a high profile issue that involved the U.S. ambassador and the Thai minister of finance. The stakes were very high and included tens of millions in investment.

“Speaking Thai broke the ice, made the Thais feels relaxed. They understand they were among friends,” he said. “The foundations for trust and growth were built through language.”

Dunne’s advice to students now is to recognize that the world is shifting to Asia and that countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand are going to be full of opportunities.

“If Asia is going to be at the center, as we think, and these smaller fast-growing nations are an alternative to China, Americans should start learning Vietnamese, Indonesian and Thai – right now.”