Professor uses unique techniques to teach an uncommon course

May 27, 2010

University Park, Pa. – In Ritu Jayakar’s class, students start the lesson off with a song. Frequently during the two-hour-and-15-minute class, Jayakar and her students watch movie clips, create podcasts and search YouTube for hit songs and popular commercials. The class isn’t based on your run-of-the-mill course agenda, but Jayakar, an instructor at Penn State's University Park campus, isn’t teaching a typical college topic. Jayakar, who grew up in India and works in Penn State’s Outreach unit as a web designer, uses entertaining, creative and unusual ways to teach her native language: Hindi.

“I grew up in different parts of India where we have 22 national languages. I speak Hindi and I love my mother tongue, so I got really excited about the opportunity to teach it here at Penn State,” Jayakar said. “I didn’t realize how much I missed Hindi until I started teaching it. It is not a very easy language to learn, but I always get terrific students so it’s been really rewarding.”

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Hindi is the 17th most frequently spoken language in the United States, where one out of every 828 people age 5 and above use Hindi in the home. However, Hindi is the third most widely spoken language worldwide, behind English and Mandarin Chinese. It is less commonly taught than more popular language classes such as German, French or Spanish, Jayakar said, though the Modern Language Association shows in the United States, enrollment in Hindi courses went up from 1,430 in 2002 to 1,946 in 2006. Her lectures and rubric for Hindi are the same for any foreign language, but using her professional skills, Jayakar integrates technology into each lesson.

Learning Hindi might be more difficult for U.S. students than more commonly taught languages because it requires a new writing system: Devanagari, the same script in which the classical language Sanskrit is written. In fact, Hindi is classified by the Defense Language Institute as a “category three” (out of four) language in regards to difficulty mastering it. In her preparations for teaching, Jayakar found a nifty Google bookmarklet that allows her students to type using the Latin alphabet on their keyboards, but then translates it into Devanagari in any online application. Students supplement their assignments by writing to each other online in Hindi, using the bookmarklet to compose responses.

Eric Hayot, associate professor of comparative literature and Asian Studies, explained that Hindi classes at Penn State first were offered on video through the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC). The CIC, composed of Big Ten universities plus the University of Chicago, allows students to take classes not offered on their own campus through another university, via live video link. As interest in Indian history, art and culture at Penn State grew, the University began to offer classes on campus. Hayot said offering Hindi at Penn State isn’t just important because India’s power in the world is growing, but because students need to be knowledgeable of many cultures.

“We need to teach our students to be citizens of a complex world. They need to be able to vote based on knowledge of our ability to interact economically and politically with other cultures, said Hayot, who also directs the Asian Studies program and Undergraduate Studies in Comparative Literature,.

Leela McKinnon, a Penn State student from State College, Pa., who has taken Jayakar’s class, is considering anthropology as her major, and said taking Hindi may be beneficial to her career.

“There are many people who speak it as a first language, so any knowledge of it will certainly be helpful in the study of human cultures,” she said.

McKinnon spent her senior year of high school living in India, so she was already interested in learning more about the language and culture. She said the language is difficult because of the new alphabet she has had to learn, but said it has been exciting to learn to read and write using another alphabet.

Shuvya Arakali, another Penn State student of Jayakar’s from Allentown, Pa., studying economics, said she has always wanted to learn Hindi.

“I think India is becoming a major economic power now and jobs are being outsourced there all the time,” she said. “As an economics major, it might come in handy, especially if I get a job in an international organization.”

Arakali also thinks it will be useful to know the language when traveling throughout India. Plus, she loves watching Hindi movies and hopes to be able to watch them without English subtitles in the future.

What Arakali and McKinnon both said they love about the class is learning more about the Hindi culture and being able to read and write in another language.

“I think it’s really valuable to know about the country where the language comes from,” said Arakali. “India is incredibly diverse and has a rich culture. Just learning a language without taking a look into its cultural background would not allow the learner to fully understand the language.”

Both students expressed an interest in studying abroad in India to enhance the language they enjoy learning.

“I think it’s the best way to become fluent in a language; that way you can learn the different colloquial phrases as well,” said Arakali.

In addition to the Hindi classes taught by Jayakar, students learning the language can join the Hindi club. It allows them to practice the language but also to educate the rest of the University community about India and its cultural practices. Founded by graduate student Tota Ram Gautam, a Fulbright Scholar brought to Penn State specifically to enhance Hindi learning at Penn State, the club meets every Monday night.

Hindi course levels one (HINDI 001) and three (HINDI 003) are offered during the fall semester at University Park; the second level is held in the spring. Students can work on their Hindi during any breaks between semesters in the club. Cultural events the club offers to University students allow its members to present what they know about the Hindi-speaking customs and societies. All students are welcome to join.

  • Ritu Jayakar.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated November 18, 2010