Harvard to offer its first-ever Tagalog language course in its nearly 400-year history

Harvard to offer its first-ever Tagalog language course in its nearly 400-year historyHarvard to offer its first-ever Tagalog language course in its nearly 400-year history
via Somesh Kesarla Suresh on Unsplash
Michelle De Pacina
March 31, 2023
Harvard University will be offering a course on the Tagalog language for the first time in its history, starting in the 2023 to 2024 academic year.
Last week, Harvard announced that its Department of South Asian Studies will be hiring three professors to teach Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesian and Thai. While Indonesian and Thai are currently taught at the school, there have been no prior courses offered in Tagalog.
According to James Robson, a professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and director of the Asia Center, Harvard was able to secure a $1 million budget from the Asia Center to fund the Tagalog preceptor position. The teaching positions, which are under three-year term appointments, are renewable for up to five additional years.
“We’re very excited and hopeful that these positions will be a game-changer in terms of the Asia Center’s long-term mission to build Southeast Asian studies at Harvard, as well as the university’s engagement with the region,” Elizabeth K. Liao, executive director of the Harvard Asia Center, said. 
Through the Filipino language course, Robson hopes to demonstrate the demand for Southeast Asian language.

What I’m hoping is that if we can demonstrate that there’s demand for these languages and students show up and are excited about it, then hopefully we can also use this to convince the administration to further support Southeast Asian studies generally and language instruction in particular.

Tagalog, which is one of the major languages in the Philippines, is reportedly the fourth most spoken language in the U.S.
Eleanor Wikstrom, co-president of the Harvard Philippine Forum (HPF) and The Crimson editorial chair, noted that offering a Filipino language course at the university had been one of the group’s goals for “as long as HPF has been in existence.”
“We’re working against a historical memory that is actively erasing the understanding of the importance of the Filipino-American relationship,” Wikstrom said.
While Wikstrom is “elated” by the news, she refuses “to celebrate Harvard for a legacy it has yet to remake,” criticizing the lack of a dedicated formal department for Southeast Asian studies.
As for HPF Co-President Marcky Antonio, he views the new course as “a big win for the Filipino community back home.”
“While this is the first Tagalog language course that’s ever been offered in Harvard’s history, I think there’s also this sense that we need to make sure we teach this right — not only Tagalog language, but Filipino culture as a whole,” Antonio said. 
Wikstrom and Antonio said they will continue to advocate for Filipino representation at Harvard.
“We have further responsibility to push this now that we know that this is possible. So we’re not going to stop at Tagalog,” Wikstrom said. 
Harvard is not the only university where students have been calling for a Tagalog language course. 
At Yale University, students interested in Tagalog are advocating for the school to offer formal courses in the Southeast Asian language.
Currently, Yale only offers Tagalog through its direct language study program, where administrators reportedly coordinate with a native speaker to offer students instruction in a language not offered at the university. However, many students who studied Tagalog through the program do not feel academically satisfied.
Ava Estacio-Touhey, who serves as president of the campus Filipino student club Kasama, said that the program will “never amount to a proper language course” as it does not have the same level of financial support and resources.
“It is disappointing that there are no dedicated Tagalog courses at Yale,” Estacio-Touhey told Yale Daily News. “Filipinos make up one of the largest Southeast Asian diasporic communities at Yale and have for decades.”
According to Professor Erik Harms, chair of the Council on Southeast Asian Studies at Yale, the issue with offering the Tagalog language at the university is “budgetary.”
“If the Yale administration was enthusiastic about supporting the teaching of Tagalog, we would be open to that conversation and trying to find a way to make that possible,” Harms said, adding that the University has not seen an “upsurge” in student interest in the language.   
But to Estacio-Touhey, Tagalog is a “language of resistance and resilience that has survived hundreds of years of colonization and militarization,” and offering it is to honor the members of the diasporic community and those interested in sharing their language and culture.
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