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ASU is meeting the need for proficient speakers of uncommon languages.
June 23, 2017

Critical Languages Institute marks 15 years of teaching Albanian in immersive program

About 5 million people in the world speak Albanian, making it one of the less common languages. It’s not even in the top 100The most commonly spoken language is Mandarin, with 955 million speakers..

But with the fall of communism in 1991 and the strategic location of the Balkan states, Albanian has become a language of crucial importance in the world.

This summer, the Critical Languages Institute at Arizona State University is marking 15 years of teaching Albanian — one of the only immersive programs for that language in the United States.

“Now that Albania is more open to the world, it’s important to have students learn Albanian language and culture,” said Linda MenikuShe spends two months at ASU every summer and is a lecturer at the University of Tirana the rest of the year. Meniku wrote the textbooks used by the students., the instructor who launched the program in 2002.

Typically, there is a handful of students in each session. In 15 years, 127 people have learned Albanian at the institute on ASU’s campus. Some want to speak Albanian for careers in international business, law or diplomacy, but Meniku has also had students who wanted to learn it so they could study archeology or mythology in Albania. One student became interested after working with Kosovar refugee families in Phoenix, and this summer, one student is learning it so she can converse with her boyfriend’s family.

Students in this summer's Critical Languages Institute's Albanian program make the Albanian "eagle" symbol with their hands. From left, they are Joe Casavecchia, Tyler Moore, Emily Barnes, instructor Linda Meniku, Aleksej Demjanski, Chris Kinley and Travis Nielsen.

 Albania, a bit smaller than South Carolina, lies about 45 miles across the Adriatic Sea from the heel of Italy’s boot. Occupied during World War II and then isolated and ruled by a brutal communist dictator until 1991, the country now is a member of NATO. Tourism is booming, with the dramatic Albanian coastline named one of the “52 Places to Go” by the New York Times in 2014.

Albanian also is the language of Kosovo, a country still recovering from ethnic wars in the 1990s with Serbia, and it is spoken in Macedonia, Italy and Greece.

The U.S. government has designated Albanian as a critical language with proficient speakers in high demand, according to Kathleen Evans-Romaine, director of the Critical Languages InstituteCurrently, the CLI offers programs in Albanian, Armenian, Bosnian, Croatian, Hebrew, Indonesian, Persian, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Turkish and Uzbek., part of the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies.

“Typically you have heritage speakers, who are the children of refugees or immigrants. The difficulty is that there are sometimes restrictions in working with the government if you are a heritage speaker, because they might not be able to get certain kinds of clearance,” she said.

“If you’re going to be working on legal reform in Kosovo, you need to speak Albanian at a very high level,” she said.

The institute’s programs are tuition-free, funded by federal agencies, sponsors and donors. The federal Title 8 program pays for language instruction for graduate students, such as Joe Casavecchia, who graduated from ASU in May with degrees in political science and American history. In the fall, he’ll enter the University of Chicago Law School.

“I’ll be studying international trade and economic development from a domestic perspective, but you always need to have an international background and to keep your options open,” he said.

“If you find your international niche and they need someone who speaks Albanian, then there you are.”

Albanian is considered a “category 2” language — more difficult to learn than French and Spanish but not as hard as Mandarin and Persian.

Chris Kinley, a doctoral student in modern Balkan history at Ohio State University, is studying border villages between Greece and Albania and is learning the language at ASU this summer for his research.

“This is my sixth language, and I think it’s the hardest one to learn. I love the Albanian language, but there are some really intense grammar rules,” he said.

First-year Albanian is taught in a seven-week program on ASU’s Tempe campus with an optional four-week immersion trip to Tirana, Albania’s capital, where students stay with host families. Second-year Albanian is taught in eight weeks in Tirana.

“Visiting Tirana is a very deep and strong cultural experience, and they see a lot of historical sites,” Meniku said. The country has been open to outsiders for only about 25 years, and the students visit an old Cold War bunker that’s now a museum.

“Every year I have students who change their lives by taking Albanian.”

Indeed, one of Meniku’s former students became so passionate that she funded a scholarship for the study of Albanian. Elaine Berkowitz, a dentist in Pittsburgh, was deployed to Camp Bondsteel in post-war Kosovo with the U.S. Army Reserves in 2007, 2010 and 2011, where she volunteered her time lecturing in a dental school and teaching brushing and flossing to children. She found the Kosovars to be kind and appreciative. After she retired from the Army in 2012, she searched for a program to learn the language.

“Lo and behold, ASU was the one,” said Berkowitz, who was 68 when she took first-year Albanian in 2013. “It was tough! But I thought the program and Linda were terrific.”

Since then, she has returned to Kosovo and Albania several times. In 2015, she established the scholarship to make it easier for students at the Critical Languages Institute.

“This is a poor country, but the Albanian Muslims are the greatest people,” she said. “They extend hospitality like you wouldn't believe.”

The Critical Languages Institute’s Albanian program will celebrate its 15th anniversary at a gathering at 7 p.m. Monday at the Adelphi Commons on the Tempe campus, with ethnic food, music and dancing. For more details, contact the institute at 480-965-4188.

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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June 23, 2017

Aiming to create ripple effect of economic change in tribal communities, Inno-NATIONS initiative hosts its inaugural cohort

The presenter went around the conference room on Friday morning, asking participants if they thought of themselves as entrepreneurs.


Not one of them — eight Native American business owners — raised their hand or said yes.

“We’re taught to be humble in that sense, not to boast,” said Kelsey Haake, a Phoenix-based certified financial manager and estate planner. “We haven’t been ingrained to think ourselves of that way.”

Haake (pictured above, center), originally from the Inupiaq Tribe in northwestern Alaska, said humility is heavily emphasized in Indian Country and that Native Americans are taught not think of themselves as better than others or go out of their way to stand out from the crowd.

Host Traci Morris smiled knowingly, anticipating the reason. But she wanted everyone to give themselves a pat on the back for a job well done.

“I never called myself an entrepreneur either, but I would argue that you’re all innovators, business people and entrepreneurs,” said Morris, ASU’s American Indian Policy Institute director and Inno-NATIONS founder. “If we weren’t great innovators and adaptors, we wouldn’t have survived Colonialism. I think Native Americans are the greatest entrepreneurs of all.”

Looking to create opportunity, the American Indian Policy Institute in collaboration with ASU’s Entrepreneurship + Innovation has developed an intertribal initiative called Inno-NATIONS, which champions indigenous entrepreneurship and economic development across America.

The goal is to support up-and-coming Native American businesses and ignite their enterprises to fuel sustainable tribal economies by rejuvenating and modernizing traditional trade networks.

Morris said by spearheading innovative partnerships and leveraging resources from ASU, tribes and community organizations, she hopes that Inno-NATIONS will create a “collision community,” causing a ripple effect of economic change in tribal communities.

This year marks the inaugural cohort with Native entrepreneurs, which met from June 22-24. After an opening reception in downtown Phoenix, they got down to business. Through a learning lab, strategy discussions, multimedia presentations and mentorship, the eight participants worked on and learned about business pitches, storytelling, indigenous innovation principles, strategic planning sessions, startup models and business goals. They also read financial statements, took quizzes, watched videos and read several articles by ASU professors.

Morris said after this weekend, they’ll also receive six months of follow-up business counseling, webinars, membership in the Arizona American Indian Chamber of Commerce and a feature article in The Visionary magazine.

The information learned in these sessions was valuable, said Chickasaw Nation citizen Kristen Dorsey. She traveled from Los Angeles to participate.

“These activities were really helpful to me in defining markets and speaking to them effectively,” said Dorsey, who has a Southeastern-inspired line of jewelry. “It was definitely worth the trip.”

For Hopi Tribe member Delvan Polelonema, who owns Naqwatsveni Skateboarding, it was more about receiving confirmation that he was on the right track.

“It’s helpful to know someone else who's been there believes in what you’re doing,” said Polelonema. “I now have more confidence in myself and my product.”

So does Haake, who by the end of the session started to get used to the idea of calling herself an "entrepreneur.”

“I’m more open to the label of calling myself an entrepreneur after this formal business training,” Haake said. “I can say it now without feeling strange about it.”

The entire Inno-NATIONS Inaugural Community Cohort includes: Marian Declay, Native Organization Entertainment; Kristen Dorsey, Kristen Dorsey Designs; Adrian Dotson, ETD Inc; Kelsey Haake, Inuit Financial Services; Rykelle Kemp, Wooden Nickel Store; Candice Mendez, Salt V.Mo Consulting; Delvan Polelonema, Naqwatsveni Skateboarding and Asia Soleil Yazzie, Lady Yazzie.

Top photo: (From left) Delvan Polelonema, owner of Naqwatsveni Skateboarding; Kelsey Haake, a Phoenix-based certified financial manager and estate planner; and Rykelle Kemp, owner of the Wooden Nickel, listen during the Inno-NATIONS workshop Friday in Phoenix. by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now