Pomona Adds Self-Taught Swahili Program

This fall, Pomona College is offering Swahili through the Self-Instructional Language Program (SILP). SILP is a half-credit course modeled on similar programs offered at colleges such as Williams College and Grinnell College.

Last April, all Pomona students received an e-mail asking if they wanted to learn a new language not previously offered by the college through a new self-instructional program. Choices offered included Farsi, Hebrew, Hindi/Urdu, Swahili and Thai. Interested students were instructed to send an e-mail indicating their interest in participating in the program.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm. Somewhere around 40-50 students responded with an interest in 15 different languages,” Pomona Registrar Margaret Adorno wrote in an e-mail to TSL.

“So far only Swahili is being offered, and it was selected because there has been particular and very strong interest in the language,” she wrote.

Through SILP, students study on their own according to a schedule and meet collectively with a language coach once a week to practice conversation and go over assignments.

“SILP is associated with National Association of Self-Instructional Language Program as a means to teach less commonly known languages when you don’t have actual faculty members on site,” said Rita Bashaw, Director of the Oldenborg Center.

Daniel Low PO ’11 was at the forefront of advocating SILP to the Pomona administration.

“My classmates and I had been studying harder for Swahili than for many of my other classes, so I felt it should be recognized academically,” Low wrote in an e-mail to TSL.

“When I first came to Pomona, I knew I had an interest in working in sub-Saharan Africa. Simultaneously, I knew that if I wanted to work in sub-Saharan Africa in the future, it would be wise to learn a language,” he wrote.

In his search for someone who could teach him Swahili, Low met Fatma Kassamali, who at the time worked in the Career Management office at Claremont Graduate University (CGU). Kassamali had taught Swahili in Williams’ Critical Language Program for nearly 20 years.

In his sophomore year, Low met with Kassamali three times a week to learn Swahili. By the end of the year, he was conversational. Low spent his summer in Tanzania and Kenya before beginning his semester abroad in Kenya. When he returned, proficient in Swahili, he taught a non-credit class at Oldenborg three times a week.

“I think it’s important for Pomona (and the world) to embrace multiculturalism, and I felt that it was wrong that no African languages were taught at the school, especially since we offer a study abroad program to Kenya,” Low wrote. “I visited the University of Arizona, where the Critical Language Program is based, and talked to the director there about implementing a program at Pomona and the nuts and bolts required to do that. I then took that to the administration and tried to make it happen.”

Katrina Daly Thompson, Assistant Professor in the Applied Linguistics department at UCLA, developed the Swahili course. Thompson set the textbook, structured the syllabus and course schedule and will be writing the final and midterm examinations.

There are currently two language coaches participating in the program. Maduhu Kazi, one of the language coaches, is originally from Tanzania and is currently completing his Ph.D. in economics at CGU.

“I’m not a language expert, but it is my first language, and I have been exposed to it ever since I was born,” Kazi said.

Chris Leon PZ ’14 heard about SILP from a Pomona student he worked with over the summer. Leon, and other students, are drawn by the unique approach to learning a language.

“I’d never spoken Swahili, but the idea of it sounded really cool,” Leon said. “It’s not a full-credit class, but it’s a nice and comfortable exposure to a new language.”

“Learning a language in a smaller group is much more effective than a typical classroom setting,” Deborah Frempong PO ’15 said.

According to Adorno, SILP may expand, depending on resources.

“But bear in mind that this is in no sense overlapping with our language and literature departments,” Adorno wrote. “SILP offers half-course credit that does not satisfy the language requirement, nor can it, and is about exposure, not full disciplinary training.”

Bashaw said that Oldenborg is interested in expanding the program.

“For students who want to apply for graduate school or Fulbright, it’s helpful to be able to show some formal study of a language,” Bashaw said.

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