Learning a Language Off-Campus

According to its website, Princeton offers courses in about twenty modern languages. Sounds pretty comprehensive – until you consider that the world has literally thousands of distinct living languages.

World languages by proportion of native speakers

As I start preparing for my independent work next year, I’m thinking a lot about language ability, especially as it relates to primary source access. For non-Anglophone historical research, facility in the region’s language/s is essential to original scholarship. Personally, I’m interested in Eastern European Jewish history. The good news: I only really need one language to study primary sources from this period. The bad news: it’s not one of the twenty offered on campus.

It’s not entirely shocking that Yiddish language classes aren’t offered here. A century ago, millions of people spoke this German-Hebrew-Slavic hybrid – in both Europe and the U.S. However, after the Holocaust and the murder and displacement of most of the world’s Yiddish speakers, the language declined in popularity. Today, it is primarily spoken by ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews.

In any event, Yiddish won’t be offered here any time soon. But, stubbornly refusing to give up on Yiddish, I met with over ten Princeton faculty members over the course of last semester to discuss possibilities. Below, I’ve compiled some of the many opportunities I discovered through those conversations:

Taking a language at another university during the semester. Princeton does not yet offer students a way to Skype into an off-campus classroom, so this is currently limited to local universities and language programs. To learn more, contact Professor Jamie Rankin of the German department.

Participating in a summer program. Summer immersion programs exist for more languages than you might expect! You may even be able to get Princeton funding for this — you can always check out SAFE’s website for funding opportunities.

Studying abroad. Even if the language you seek to learn isn’t spoken in the country you choose, the universities there might offer classes in it. To learn more, schedule a meeting with a Study Abroad Adviser.

Designing a reading course. If a faculty member speaks the language you seek to learn, you can ask them to tutor you one-on-one for full class credit. To learn more, see the Reading Courses website.

Applying for funding for an off-campus tutor. Locate a tutor who can meet with you in-person or over Skype and ask the relevant departments if they might cover the expenses. It’s easier to find funding if you plan to use the language in your independent work.

Ultimately, I secured funding from three departments for a weekly Skype tutor for the semester. No, it’s not ideal, but I am so grateful for all of the support I received along the way. If I learned anything from this process, it’s that at Princeton, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Even when the resources you need aren’t readily available, Princeton faculty will help you locate them. It’s just a matter of asking for help.

–Rafi Lehmann, Social Sciences Correspondent