Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College recently got an international studies grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create programs that center around South Asia - countries like India, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam.
Western will offer classes in Hindi/Urdu, as well as Vietnamese at its extension in Grand Rapids. Phillip Ngyuen is president of the Vietnamese-American Community of Grand Rapids. He says a lot of young Vietnamese-Americans don’t know the language.
That can create personal and cultural problems in families. Families like that of Grand Valley State University student Trung Vuong Pham.
“Before my grandmother passed away, I did have trouble talking to her sometimes because she lived with us," he says. "
"So like whenever she needed something, I’d always either have to ask my mother or father to translate or I’d just have to kind of figure it out."
Pham says he'd like the ability to speak fluent Vietnamese to be closer to his relatives and to retain a part of his cultural heritage.
Grand Rapids resident Ron Swanson says his mother-in-law moved in with him about a year ago. She only speaks Vietnamese. He says he’s tried to learn it on his own, but hasn’t had a lot of luck.
“I’ve used quite a few different types of software and book learning, but because of the tones and needing to hear the tonal - it’s a tonal language. It’s difficult without an instructor,” he says.
Nathan Tabor teaches South Asian history at Western. He says the university needs more of a focus on South Asia - which holds a quarter of the world's population.
Western will also offer combined classes in Hindi and Urdu. Tabor says the languages are written in different scripts, but when spoken they're almost identical.
“So they share a grammar, they share a vocabulary at the spoken level, and they share media - Bollywood, for instance,” he says.
Tabor says like the Vietnamese classes, these classes could help younger generations to become more fluent in the languages of their parents and grandparents - but there will also be cultural classes too.
Tabor says after Chinese, Hindi and Urdu are the most spoken languages in the world. Due to media deregulation in India over the past few decades, those languages have had a huge influence.
“You know everybody talks about the newspaper dying the world over. Well in India this is the one place where newspaper economy is in fact growing. Readership is growing of newspapers. I think the newspaper with the largest circulation in the world is in India and it’s written in Hindi," says Tabor. "So it’s wanting to connect to this very large linguistic community.”
Much of Kalamazoo College’s portion of the grant will go to research. Things like looking into how waste workers in India live and the complex relationship between South Asian countries and the small island of Mauritius near Madagascar.