A Hundred Tongues

March 23, 2015
Avaneesh Narla

I love languages, and I even went on a Global Seminar through Princeton to Geneva to study how communities respond to linguistic diversity. One of the most surprising pockets of linguistic diversity I have encountered is actually in the heart of suburban New Jersey: Princeton University.

Academically, Princeton offers 23 languages for study, including Twi, Bulgarian and Korean. All Princeton students in the A.B. degree program have to be proficient in a foreign language to graduate, and many know more than one foreign language. Also, many engineering students opt to learn a language because of Princeton’s famed language departments.

Language tables are available in the residential colleges, where you can join a group of students over dinner and converse in a language other than your own to gain an immersive experience and practice a language outside class. This is possible for all languages academically offered and for other languages such as Bengali and Thai. But as you walk around Princeton, you find many more languages spoken than just those taught in class, and you are bound to encounter them on a daily basis.

One reason for this is that more than 1,500 international students (graduate and undergraduate) attend Princeton. Thus, you can always find groups of students speaking Greek or Swahili or Persian in the dining halls or study spaces. I always find it comforting to be able to talk in my mother tongue, Telugu, to others, and sure enough, I was able to find many Telugu speakers in Princeton when needed.

In the dining hall where I often eat, I hear Haitian Creole spoken by many of the staff. and they are always willing to listen to my broken French. In many of my classes, interpreters also are present for the deaf students who sign in American Sign Language (which you can also practice in language tables, and is also signed by many non-Deaf students at Princeton). And though English can claim a functional monopoly on language at Princeton, a great linguistic diversity on campus occurs because of the University's diverse community.