SEATTLE – The University of Washington’s South Asia Center recently concluded our inaugural intensive Nepali language workshop, bringing together 26 language learners from across the country for two weeks of online learning sessions.
Organized by the Center’s Nepal Studies Initiative and led by Professor Binod Shrestha of the University of British Columbia, this workshop was originally designed to be held in person on UW’s Seattle campus to prepare faculty and students planning to work, study, or conduct research in Nepal.
But the COVID-19 pandemic quickly put an end to international travel plans and in-person gatherings on campus.
The workshop was then adapted to an online format using Zoom, with Shrestha teaching remotely from his home in Surrey, British Columbia, with the help of Sauharda Rai, a UW PhD student in International Studies and a native of Nepal.
Shrestha and Rai developed a course plan that combined traditional grammar lessons with speaking and listening exercises held in Zoom breakout rooms, interactive games, and virtual visits from Nepali native speakers.
Reflecting this new reality of online instruction in the time of COVID-19, the Center opened up admission to students and professionals from outside the UW community.
The response was striking. The Center received over 30 applications, and a cohort of 26 language learners joined the workshop.
What brought these participants to the study of Nepal and Nepali? Students’ diverse motivations reflected an enduring interest in pursuing a less-commonly taught language (LCTL) across professions, age groups, and personal interests.
In addition to current college students and faculty studying Nepali for research purposes, participants included nonprofit professionals working in global health and education; a COVID-19 contact tracer responsible for taking calls with Nepali speakers over the phone; and a filmmaker brushing up on language skills before a return to the field, to name a few.
Across the board, participants stressed the importance of cross-cultural communication to make meaningful connections at home and abroad.
Elizabeth Dobbins, for one, appreciated “the chance to meet and connect with other people from all over the US interested in learning Nepali.”
Dobbins, a recent Hanover College graduate who received a Fulbright fellowship to teach English in Nepal next year, hopes to use her Nepali skills to work with Bhutanese communities in her home state of Ohio upon her return.
Christopher Kemp, Acting Assistant Professor in the Department of Global Health at UW, is part of a multi-year, multi-sectoral research project focused on improving food systems in the country. The initiative is a collaboration between UW, international NGOs, and the Nepali government.
“I am excited to use my Nepali to strengthen my engagement with our field work and data collection in rural communities, and to build stronger connections to support work in the future,” said Kemp.
Christina Juan struck a similar tone. An incoming PhD student in global health at George Washington University, Juan plans to conduct mixed-methods research on gender and adolescent mental health for her dissertation. She noted how the Nepali language skills she acquired during the UW course will be essential in making her communication with Nepali subjects more meaningful.
While the prospect of international travel remains uncertain in the near future, many of the workshop participants are keeping up on their language skills via online conversation meet-ups, facilitated by Rai, with their fellow classmates and new colleagues.
For some, the connections made this summer will be lifelong. Christina Juan has already made plans to meet regularly with a fellow student to keep up on her Nepali.
“For anyone who plans to travel to Nepal or is interested in learning the language, I highly recommend this course,” said Juan. “It was well done, especially given all the complexities of piloting a course and, on top of that, transitioning everything to an online format during a global health crisis.”
Housed in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, the South Asia Center is an important intellectual and pedagogical hub for the study of South Asia. A National Resource Center funded by the Title VI program of the United States Department of Education, our mission is to enhance the study of South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) on campus, in the community, across the Pacific Northwest, and throughout the United States.