Teaching the Language of Cultural Engagement

The recognition of Hindi as a critical language has given institutional support to the Hindi programs at American universities.

By Giriraj Agarwal

September 2023

Teaching the Language of Cultural Engagement

Rakesh Ranjan (front left) with students (back row) from the Critical Language Scholarship Program in Jaipur. (Photograph courtesy Roma Patel)

Rakesh Ranjan is a senior lecturer and coordinator of the Hindi Urdu Program at Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS). He received a Ph.D. in linguistics from University of Delhi and has been teaching Hindi language, literature and linguistics to American graduate and undergraduate students for the past 15 years. He is also a visiting faculty member of the Hindi language program at the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) in India. Ranjan has designed and supervised many Hindi programs. His recent projects include Hindi and Urdu audiovisual modules based on real-life situations for teachers and learners of the two languages.  

Excerpts from an interview with SPAN. 

Please give us an overview about Hindi programs at Columbia University.

Columbia University started teaching Hindi and Urdu courses in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies in the 1980s. It was a small program at the beginning but expanded over time. The department was restructured when Professor Sheldon Pollock became the chair in 2007. New faculty members were hired in the Hindi-Urdu program too. I joined the Hindi-Urdu program as the director and coordinator in 2008.  

The Hindi-Urdu language program at Columbia is one of the most comprehensive and competitive programs in the country. In the academic 2022-23, our program has the second-largest enrollment among the 12 languages taught at MESAAS. 

How popular are Hindi programs at Columbia? What inspires American students to choose Hindi courses? 

Columbia University teaches more than 40 languages. Our program is among the top 10 programs in terms of enrollment. Hindi courses are open to undergraduate and graduate Columbia students.  

There are several reasons for taking Hindi courses. Graduate students want to study Hindi for research and textual analysis. Many undergraduate students study Hindi for academic reasons, that is, to learn and explore the rich literary traditions of the language. Students also want to learn about the nuances of diverse speech communities and the vibrant cultural traditions of India. Many students take Hindi because they want to watch and understand popular Bollywood Hindi movies.  

Columbia has many students of South Asian origin. Though their backgrounds are often linguistically diverse, for teaching and pedagogical purposes, we have developed distinct tracks for these heritage Hindi learners. Hindi for Heritage Speakers is a very popular course at Columbia.  

Has the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program and the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) added to the popularity of Hindi in the United States? 

Hindi is taught in more than 30 universities in the United States. The recognition of Hindi as a critical language by the U.S. government institutions in the last decade gave big institutional support to Hindi programs at the university, public and community school levels.  

One of the goals of the NSLI-Y was to expand the number of Americans mastering a language starting from a young age and furthering language proficiency at the advanced level. STARTALK supported Hindi summer programs that encourage young learners to learn the language in a new pedagogical environment. NSLI-Y for high school students, CLS for college students, and other scholarships inspire students to study Hindi (and other critical languages). 

How do alumni of Hindi programs make use of their learning? 

Our students are from different academic schools of Columbia University. Many of our students are doctors, engineers and lawyers. They are employed in the information technology, health, and financial and banking sectors.  

Some scholars who pursued South Asian Studies are faculty members in various prestigious universities in the United States. Professors Christian Novetzke (University of Washington), Tyler Williams (University of Chicago) Andrew Ollett (University of Chicago), Cornwall Owen (Tufts University) and Shiv Subramaniam (Emory University) are a few prominent names. 

Do you have any collaborations with Indian universities? 

Yes, our faculty members do participate in different conferences and workshops organized by Indian universities. It is very common to collaborate with Indian universities in South Asian Studies these days. Our language program co-sponsored the International Hindi Conference at the I.P. College, University of Delhi, in January 2020.  

Are there any Hindi-related activities at Columbia University?  

I encourage my students to organize events such as “GUPSHUP,” a student group that organizes academic and cultural events for the Hindi-Urdu-speaking student community. My advanced Hindi students won the first prize in the National Hindi Debate Contest at Yale University this year.  

Please share your experiences of teaching Hindi to American youth. Do you think it helps bring both the countries closer? 

I have been teaching Hindi for the past 25 years. It is not only my profession, but it is also my passion. Teaching Hindi is the most fulfilling experience for me. The growth of Hindi in the United States is directly related to the growth of India and the popularity of Hindi in the United States will certainly bring both countries closer. 

Tell us about any initiatives you’ve started at Columbia.  

I have developed online audiovisual (AV) learning modules in the last few years. The diversity of learners has changed the landscape of Hindi learners and Hindi teaching. It has made the curricular requirements more challenging for teachers, pedagogues and program administrators. I think the AV modules strengthen online resources for the teachers and students. 

These video clips are short, unscripted, unrehearsed and offer samples of spontaneous and authentic Hindi speech. They can be used in classrooms to engage students and improve communication skills. 

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