Indiana University language programs benefit students and nation
Jessica Wilson has been interested in world languages and cultures ever since she lived in Germany as an exchange student in high school.
“After going there, it became a big interest for me,” she said. “Growing up, I always wanted to learn different languages. I used to know some German and took Spanish in high school, so I was always interested in broadening my view of the world by learning languages, but it grew into wanting to learn more about the world and global politics.”
It was popular culture, however, that led Wilson to want to study the Korean language at Indiana University (IU).
“A lot of my classmates say they started studying Korean because of K-pop and K-beauty, and that was my reasoning in the beginning,” she said. “I was interested in how quickly Korea became one of the most booming economies in recent decades with their K-beauty, K-entertainment, K-pop, and everything like that.”
After high school, Wilson was directly admitted to the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies with a dual major in East Asian Languages and Cultures and International Studies.
Now entering her senior year, Wilson has increased her Korean language proficiency and is focusing her studies at the intersection of Korean culture, politics, and the global economy.
To kick off the fall semester this year, Wilson and 400 other students attended Language Fest, hosted by the Hamilton Lugar School. At the event, students enjoyed cultural activities, took mini language classes, enjoyed live international music, and learned about language course offerings.
“I think the event was a good introduction and helped students realize how many languages they can learn and how many cultures they can learn about,” said Wilson.
Indiana University has long been a national hub for world language education, offering more than 80 languages—the most in the U.S.
Students at IU study languages for a variety of reasons.
First year student Vasilios Koultourides, who is minoring in Greek, was drawn to Indiana University to study biology, with plans to attend medical school. He is studying Greek to pay homage to his family heritage.
“My parents and grandparents are Greek, so Greek was spoken in the house. I’m a heritage speaker but my Greek is not perfect,” said Koultourides. “Greek was actually my first language, but when I started kindergarten, my English was very bad, so my parents stopped teaching me Greek. When I got to fifth grade, I went to Greek school every Friday after school from fifth to seventh or eighth grade when I graduated.”
Koultourides said it was important to him to continue his language learning in college.
“I felt like I didn’t know enough as a Greek person,” he said. “I thought taking Greek classes through college would reinforce my grammar, writing, and speaking. I want to go travel around Greece, have conversations with people and meet new friends, and really talk to my family how I’d want to communicate with them as I would in English,” he said.
Like Koultourides, many students are attracted to language learning as a way to explore the world.
“The world is so large, that you can only do so much if you speak only one language,” he said. “If you really want to go see the world and experience the cultures and traditions, you should really learn those languages to feel a part of those communities. You’ll get an experience you wouldn’t normally get if you only speak one language.”
What attracted first year student Olivia Reedy to study Kiswahili was her desire to expand her horizons.
“I took Spanish in high school, but I wanted to try something new. IU has so many languages here and my advisor told me I could do anything I wanted. African languages are underutilized, and I wanted to branch out,” she said.
Opportunities to branch out are exactly what the Hamilton Lugar School offers. Korean, Greek, and Kiswahili are the kind of languages the school specializes in teaching — less commonly taught languages, and those considered critical to U.S. interests.
Reedy said that attending Language Fest and learning about opportunities solidified her decision to learn Kiswahili.
“Learning a language will definitely open opportunities for me, especially study abroad and getting to understand culture at a deeper level,” she said. “It’s so nice to have the opportunity to be surrounded by people who come from these backgrounds and are able to teach authentically about these backgrounds and share viewpoints I would have never known about,” she said.
The demand for language education at IU is not only high among students. Employers and elite university graduate programs highly value students who are skilled in less commonly taught languages.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Education Title VI program offers generous funding to students learning less commonly taught languages, and languages deemed critical to U.S. interests. In the most recent Title VI grant period, Indiana University received $8.6 million in Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships to award to students. As the nation’s top recipient of Title VI funding for 2022-26, Indiana University is a leading producer of regional experts who are highly proficient in languages critical to U.S. interests.
IU alumna Emily Stranger received Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships to support her language and cultural studies. Stranger studied Azerbaijani, Sorani Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Arabic, Persian, Uzbek, and Pahlavi/Middle Persian at the Hamilton Lugar School, and completed an M.A. in Central Eurasian Studies.
“If you specialize in one of these languages, you will get an interview,” she said. “When I was applying to government jobs, I always got called back. Your resume will not get lost in the pile.”
Stranger now works at the U.S. Department of Defense as a regional expertise and cultural instructor. She prepares U.S. soldiers for missions primarily in the Middle East and Central Asia by teaching them about regional culture, history, and political and social issues.
“There are a lot of opportunities out there for people who have unique regional knowledge, especially in government,” she said.
In addition to professional advantages, students are motivated to learn languages to deepen cultural understanding and to tackle global issues.
First year student Xavier Alarie came to IU to major in International Studies and continue his study of Japanese. After discovering the wealth of language options at IU, he decided to take classes in Chinese as well, and double major in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He hopes to become proficient in both languages to travel and work abroad, but says languages are more than a means to an end.
“The U.S. is supposed to be one of the most globalized countries, but I feel like there’s an overwhelming idea that in the U.S., everybody has to learn English and we don’t have to learn any other languages, and I feel like that is a flawed way of looking at things,” he said. “Learning another language and learning how to interact with other parts of the world is a really important part of becoming a global citizen.”
Jor Whitelow, first year student in the IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, is taking Yoruba classes because he loves languages. He has previously studied Zulu, German, and Brazilian Portuguese.
“When you’re speaking a new language, you’re learning how to think a different way,” he said. “That’s what I believe is very important. Languages help unite us and can help advance us so we can solve common problems like global warming.”
Hamilton Lugar School senior Jada Row is majoring in International Studies, Art History, and minoring in French. She put her French language skills to use this summer at a Paris nonprofit, connecting refugees to vital services, helping them with housing and visa applications, and working to transfer their degrees to the French education system.
“It was wonderful to be able to help them—speaking with doctors and lawyers and helping them sign up for French language courses,” she said. “I’m very interested in immigration policies in Europe and I’m taking a class related to that this semester. In France, their process for legal immigration is so much more efficient than ours is here, and it’s wonderful to see how it works, and to see how letting immigrants in benefits everyone.”
Cultural preservation is another priority for students who study language.
First year Ph.D. linguistics student Timothee Kouadio is interested in studying under-studied or under-documented languages.
“To this end, for my Ph.D. studies, I will focus on my mother language, Ano, or Andho, which is a Kwa language spoken in my home country, Côte d’Ivoire,” he said. “In addition to Ano, I speak other Akan languages such as Baoule and Agni, including its three varieties or dialects: Bini, Agni Djuablin and Agni Indénié.”
Kouadio also speaks French, Spanish, and completed his master’s degree in linguistics.
“Languages that are under-documented and understudied are simply prone to disappear,” he said. “I know some native speakers of languages that are spoken by less than 60 people. This means we need to document the languages, try to teach the languages, and to normalize them to some extent. So, it’s really important to study those languages not only for the language itself, but to tell the world, to show other people the beauty that every language has. Each one comes with different cultural value.”
He emphasized how multiple language fluency can catalyze interdisciplinary work.
“Learning another language opens the window for collaborations at different levels, be it scientific, economic, or political, depending on the domain. Language is the barrier that we need to overcome,” he said.
Kouadio’s advice to incoming IU students is to be daring in the pursuit of language fluency.
“Language is kind of a window to see how other people think,” he said. “If you want to engage with others you have to start by simply crossing the barrier of language. If you don’t cross, it might be really difficult for you to leave your comfort zone and explore the world around every one of us. Just look beyond your comfort zone and dare to learn other languages to make yourself an international, and not just a national, citizen.”