Teaching Uzbek across State Lines

By Maureen Miller, director of communications, Office of International Affairs

A collaborative effort between The Ohio State University; the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC); and the University of Michigan is bringing the Uzbek language into the classroom through a distance learning initiative. Ohio State’s  Center for Languages, Literatures and Cultures; Center for Slavic and East European Studies; College of Arts and Sciences; Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures; East Asian Studies Center; and the Office of International Affairs collectively play a role in the project by offering financial, administrative and technology support.

The first-year Uzbek course, launched autumn semester, is taught by native speaker and Ohio State lecturer, Hulkar Matchon, both in a classroom on the Ohio State campus and through the CIC Courseshare program to students at Michigan.

Uzbek is considered a priority language – deemed by federal agencies as a language in which they need additional expertise – and is categorized as a Less Commonly Taught Language (LCTL) by the U.S. Department of Education. Offering LCTLs is one of the priorities for both the Slavic Center and East Asian Studies Center as part of their mission as Title VI National Resource Centers. The CIC Courseshare enables the centers to broaden their impact and increase student enrollment in these critical language courses.

Distance learning is not new to Matchon who taught a similar class from 2008-2010 in partnership with Indiana University.

“This new experiment with the University of Michigan is working out incredibly well and the students seem to love this type of learning atmosphere,” said Matchon. “In my opinion the students try to learn even more so than before because there is a sort of a friendly competition between the two camps in the most positive sense of the word.”

In addition, distance learning classes enable more students with similar language interests to participate, providing them the ability to converse more, which is crucial for the learning of any language. And these classes offer students a little more freedom with their studies.

“Each student can easily contact me personally via Skype and set individual study sessions, which are great for catching up, furthering the understanding of the material and obviously allow students more independence and flexibility,” Matchon explained.

Marian Smith, a third year doctoral student in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, whose studies focus on medieval and early modern Iranian and Central Asian history, finds the Uzbek class well worth it. As a historian of the Timurid dynasty with a focus on manuscript culture, learning Uzbek is central to her work for several important reasons. First, various libraries and institutes in Uzbekistan contain a substantial number of Persian and Turkic manuscripts from the Timurid period, and she plans to conduct her dissertation research there at some point in the near future; second, many important architectural sites and cities, like Samarqand, were built during the Timurid period; and third, the Chaghatay language, which was the vernacular language of the Timurids, bears a close resemblance to modern-day Uzbek. By learning Uzbek Smith hopes to gain the necessary grammatical skills to re-visit manuscripts and works composed in Chaghatay.

“Even though we are separated by several hundred miles and interact through a TV monitor (and sometimes have to deal with technical glitches), I still feel as if I am in the same classroom,” Smith said. “It’s also a strange thing to feel like you know a professor and the other students in the class without ever having met them. This class has been a great way to get to know Ohio State’s faculty and students better, and the famous rivalry between our schools has not trickled into the classroom, so that’s definitely a good thing.”

Matchon believes that the Uzbek language can be a great asset to many students interested in the Central Asian region – its vast culture and history – in which Uzbekistan plays a significant role. Currently there is a tremendous influx of immigrants from Uzbekistan to the United States and knowledge of the language could provide many of these students with employment opportunities in different social spheres such as government or social work.

As a result of the success of this first-year course, a second-year Uzbek course will be added next year.