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Critical Role of Cornell in Instruction in Southeast Asian Languages

Smiling language teachers

Cornell’s Critical Role in Instruction in Southeast Asian Languages


by Abby Cohn, professor of linguistics and SEAP Director


Through a close collaboration between the Cornell Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) and the Department of Asian Studies, Cornell offers multilevel instruction in Burmese, Filipino (Tagalog), Indonesian, Khmer (Cambodian), Thai, & Vietnamese - the six major national languages of Southeast Asia. Cornell is the only institution in North America to do so. This is possible in part through SEAP’s designation as a Department of Education, Title VI program National Resource Center (continuously since the inception of the program).


Cornell has historically been a leader in the instruction and development of pedagogical materials for Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs) starting with the founding of the Division of Modern Languages in 1946. It has played an especially important role in the teaching of Southeast Asian languages. With the founding of the Southeast Asia Program in 1950, SEAP’s faculty were among the first in the nation to offer regular instruction in these languages, and SEAP Publications pioneered in publishing the first pedagogical materials for these languages available for an American audience. This profound commitment to instruction in these languages carries through to today where these six languages are taught by full time (senior) lecturers who are all also actively involved in developing up-to-date innovative teaching materials and assessment tools.


Offering instruction in these languages is part of the bedrock of Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program, together with its internationally recognized faculty and library collections. Language training for graduate students, undergraduates, and on occasion interested faculty members is critical to all facets of the scholarly research and teaching missions of the Southeast Asia Program. As a national and international leader in instruction in these languages, Cornell also fulfills its responsibilities as a National Resource Center in teaching, developing, and promoting instruction in the least commonly taught of the less commonly taught languages. It is worth developing this point to highlight the critical importance, not just to Cornell, but to the nation and beyond of Cornell’s continued commitment in this regard. 


Following the Modern Language Association (MLA), LCTLs are defined as all languages not in the top 15 (ranked according to student enrollment at US institutions of higher education[1]). We see that instruction in any LCTL is a critical resource as instruction in all of the LCTLs make up only 2.6 percent of total foreign language enrollment.


In this regard if we consider population or global economic significance, Asian languages are greatly underrepresented with only Japanese, Chinese, and Korean in the top 15. And the Southeast Asian languages are particularly underrepresented. Consider the population of Southeast Asia at roughly 649 million with not one national language commonly taught as compared to Western Europe at 193 million (accounting for seven of the most commonly taught). For example, Indonesian the national language of the fourth most populous nation in the world, a member of the G20, is taught at less than 20 universities in the US. Among the LCTLs we can make a further distinction between the leading less commonly taught languages and the least commonly taught. Considering the national languages of Southeast Asia, as shown in the following table, Vietnamese, Filipino (Tagalog), Indonesian, and Thai are among the leading 15 Asian or Pacific less commonly taught languages, whereas Burmese and Khmer are among the least commonly taught of the less commonly taught languages.

Language Tables[2]

What these numbers show is that Cornell is one of a handful of institutions providing the opportunity for capacity building in this increasingly important region of the world. The significance of this commitment is nicely illustrated by Burmese. Cornell, one of only two institutions offering Burmese, for many years continued to do so despite the fact that Myanmar was closed to foreigners. With recent political developments Cornell quickly expanded part-time instruction in Burmese to a multi-level program with a full time instructor to meet the rapidly increased interest in Burmese and Myanmar. Because of its ongoing commitment to Southeast Asian language instruction Cornell was able to quickly contribute to much needed capacity building in this region.


Cornell’s language instructors and Cornell as an institution are also taking a lead role in collaboration with other institutions. As a designated U.S. Department of Education Title VI Southeast Asia National Resource Center (NRC), Cornell works collaboratively with other Title VI centers across the United States and with The Council of Teachers of Southeast Asian Languages (COTSEAL) to support and promote instruction in these languages with the intention of training future scholars and diplomats.[3] In September 2017, SEAP hosted The Southeast Asian Language Teaching: New Directions conference in collaboration with the Department of Asian Studies and the Language Resource Center in the College of Arts and Sciences. This conference grew out of ongoing collaborations with the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles and the University of Wisconsin and was funded through Title VI NRC funds with support from the Henry Luce Foundation. Representatives from all seven Southeast Asia NRCs participated along with colleagues from a number of institutions offering instruction in one or more languages of Southeast Asia. All of Cornell’s six language instructors participated in the conference and welcomed the opportunity to take on leadership roles and deepen collaborations with instructors from other institutions.


One of the most pressing tasks for us at SEAP is to ensure that our SEA language offerings flourishes into the future. This includes not only the institutional commitment to these offerings, but also support for and recognition of our outstanding language instructors in their multifaceted roles as educators, curriculum developers, and collaborators at the national and international levels.



[1] MLA (2015) Enrollment in Languages Other than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2013

[2] Two institutions list that they teach Indonesian/Malay. Three institutions list that they teach Malay, the national language of Malaysia and Brunei. The other national language of Southeast Asia, Lao, is not currently taught regularly during the academic year. It is offered when enrollments allow in the summer at the Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute (SEASSI) hosted by University of Wisconsin-Madison.