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Expanding Southeast Asian Language Learning

November 30, 2021

by REN Chao, Elisebeth Doty, and Ava White

As featured in the Fall 2021 SEAP Bulletin, this article highlights an exciting new partnership between two consortia on Southeast Asian studies that have joined forces to improve collaboration in the teaching of Southeast Asian languages.

With support from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Southeast East Asian Language Council (SEALC) and the Graduate Education and Training in Southeast Asian Studies (GETSEA) consortia award financial assistance to students who incur tuition fees when studying a Southeast Asian language during the academic year at an institution other than their home institution via synchronous distance learning. This award is intended to facilitate cross-institutional collaboration and increase access to Southeast Asian language instruction, especially for students who seek to study a language or level of study not currently offered at their home institution.

SEALC and GETSEA consider several factors when awarding students and determining placements. The first is the mission of SEALC and GETSEA to uphold and expand institutional support for the teaching of Southeast Asian languages and Southeast Asian language instructors. In the interest of this mission, the SEALC-GETSEA awards support for distance, synchronous language classes taught by lecturers hired minimally as part-time staff by the North American host institution.

In addition to this mission, SEALC and GETSEA consider the requests and time constraints of the student applying for language tuition support when assigning placements in order to maximize the language gains of the student. These considerations frequently allow support of students looking for first through third year language instruction but rarely those who require more advanced levels. Finally, in order to support the greatest number of qualified students possible, SEALC-GETSEA strives to place students in high-quality courses with reduced tuition costs and looks forward to supporting additional institutions in their efforts to increase the accessibility of their Southeast Asian less commonly taught language courses via synchronous distance learning. 

To grasp the true significance of the SEALC-GETSEA language tuition support awards from the student perspective, please enjoy the article below by author REN Chao. Chao is a SEALC-GETSEA awardee from academic year 2020-2021 and a member of the GETSEA graduate student advisory council. His article highlights the academic, professional, and personal benefits of continued Southeast Asian language study made possible by the SEALC-GETSEA awards based on his own experience and his interviews with fellow awardees. 

From REN Chao, PhD Candidate in history at University of Michigan

“Mingalaba Chao, you look incredibly awake for what time it is where you are,” said Saya Justin Watkins, Professor of Burmese at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. This is how I spent most of the Monday and Friday mornings of this past academic year—early morning hours, barely awake, holding tea in my Michigan mug, and dialing into my remote Burmese class from Russell Square, ready to crack another passage in literary Burmese. Since I was the only one in the class located in the Western Hemisphere, classes are scheduled at 8 a.m. or sometimes even 7 a.m. so that other classmates won’t need to stay up too late. These morning classes not only gave me—a notoriously non-morning person—a reason to get up early, but also offered me a precious refuge away from the constant anxieties of the pandemic and of unsavory domestic and international politics, which have quite literally plagued so many of us over the past year.

As a graduate student studying colonial Southeast Asian history at the University of Michigan, I have always wanted to learn the Burmese language systematically, but it is not currently offered at my home institution. In September 2020, I was fortunate to receive a SEALC-GETSEA award and enrolled in the remote Burmese language class offered by the School of Oriental and African Studies. This award has proved to be tremendously helpful for my studies, especially at this particular juncture. With the pandemic still ongoing around the globe, on-site research has become impossible, so many of us had to change research plans. Under such restrictive circumstances, language learning has become a wonderfully productive alternative to research, and a distracting mental health refuge.

I had always hoped to find some language preparation before diving deeper into the study of archival documents, but struggled to find rigorous and affordable Burmese language-learning opportunities in previous years. The SEALC-GETSEA language training award met this need perfectly. Despite the absence of Burmese language instruction at my home institution, the this award allowed me to further my training in the Burmese language and better prepare myself for future research.


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