Department of Linguistics University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Programs & Courses

Less Commonly Taught Languages Program

Knowing more than one language has definite advantages. Businesses and governments are eager to employ persons who know the language of at least one of the countries they deal with. A good grounding in the relevant languages is also required when studying the culture, society, and politics of other countries.

The Department of Linguistics offers instruction in a number of languages that provide access to a large segment of the non-Western world, as well as to important religious and literary traditions. We offer instruction in languages that are significant because they are used either as inter-regional means of communication or by large and politically important populations:


Arabic constitutes a kind of bridge between Africa and Asia: it is spoken by 208 million people from Morocco to southern Iran and is one of the official languages of the United Nations. It is also the sacred language of Islam, one of the major world religions, and as such is known all over the world, including Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh, the countries with the largest Muslim populations. Classical Arabic is also the language of an impressive literary tradition and served as the vehicle through which the intellectual achievements of ancient Greece and India were preserved and transmitted to pre-modern Europe. For more information, see the Arabic Program website.


Bamana (or Bamara) serves the same function in large parts of West Africa, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gambia, and Senegal.


Modern Hindi and Urdu are closely related forms of language that together are the most widely used means of communication in South Asia, an area that is home to one quarter of the world's population. Hindi is spoken or understood by 383 million of the nearly one billion inhabitants of India and serves as one of the two official link languages of the Republic of India. Urdu, with 96 million speakers, is the official language of Pakistan and is widely used in India. Both languages have rich traditions in literature. Our program emphasizes Hindi, and in the first year instruction includes an introduction to basic grammatical structures shared by the two languages. For more information, see the Hindi Program website.


Lingala, with 6 million speakers, performs a similar function in the central African nations of the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lingala is undoubtedly the most important indigenous investment language of Central Africa. Its fuller potential has yet to be realized due to the political instability that has characterized this region, especially the DRC and Congo-Brazzaville. In time, the development of the DRC's immense natural resources will establish Lingala firmly as the critical investment language. In the meantime, its current prestige and function in the larger parts of the African Great Lakes region makes it a major gateway to a fuller understanding of the urban cultural life and regional socio-political developments. Also, to appreciate the great cultural value of Congolese music, one needs to learn the language both for entertainment and for educational enrichment. The richness of the Congolese music in Lingala, its role as a chronicler of Congolese socio-cultural history, and its immense influence on other African music genres are unmatched by any other African pop language.

Modern Greek

Greek forms an independent branch of the Indo-European languages. Given its long history, Greek has provided a large part of the vocabulary in the sciences as well as the medical and legal fields. Today, Standard Modern Greek is spoken as an official language in Greece and Cyprus. Because of the membership of Greece and Cyprus in the European Union, Greek is one of the 23 official languages of the European Union. Modern Greek is spoken natively by about 14-17 million people in Greece and Cyprus as well as in Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Southern Italy, Israel, and Egypt. It is also spoken by large diasporic communities in North and South America and Australia, while its popularity as a foreign language is rising especially in Europe and the Balkans. For more information, see the Modern Greek Program web site.


Modern Persian (or Farsi) is the major language of Iran and a prominent language in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It has official-language status in all three countries. There are nearly 60 million speakers of Persian worldwide. Persian is gaining popularity in the United States because of the need to develop new channels of communication and dialogue between the United States and these nations. Our Persian program is based on the latest communicative and task-based language teaching methodology in three levels for beginners to advanced learners.


Turkish was the language of the Ottoman Empire, a superpower in the world between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries which ruled over much of Eastern Europe, the Near East, and the Mediterranean rim. Modern day Turkey is a geographical bridge between the continents of Asia and Europe, linked by the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul. It has relationships with the European Union and is involved in international organizations such as NATO, while maintaining friendly ties with neighboring countries. Turkish is one of the most important investment languages for people interested in the EU, Middle Eastern studies, world history, international relations, politics, economics, music, archeology, architecture, and tourism. It is a language that is gaining popularity as a foreign language in the United States and in other parts of the world, because of the growing geo-political role that Turkey now plays in global relations. Many current government and educational jobs concerning Europe, the Middle East and Asia favor those with proficiency in Turkish. Turkish certainly represents a major-access language to numerous opportunities in the regions where it is spoken.


Sanskrit is still spoken by several thousand in India, although it is now dying out in spoken use. It remains, however, the most important language of traditional Indian civilization, culture, science, and religion. Its significance is comparable to the combined significance of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew in the tradition of Western civilization. Its earliest texts, the Vedas, go back as far as 1500 B.C., but its use as a literary language continues to the present day.


Swahili is spoken and understood by approximately 46 million people in large parts of East Africa, including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and parts of Somalia and the Congo. One of the most widely spoken and studied languages in Sub-Saharan Africa, it has a rich literary tradition that goes as far back as the 11th century. For this reason, Swahili gives access not only to a rich social and political culture, but also to a wide economic market in Central and Eastern Africa and beyond. Swahili is (with Arabic) one of the only two African languages adopted as official languages of the African Union, the successor to the Organization of African Unity. For individuals interested in comparative language contact and Islamic studies in Eastern Africa, Swahili is an ideal Bantu language for study, instantiating long historical contact with Arabic and serving as the language of Islam in the region. For more information, see the Swahili Program website.


Wolof, with 6 million speakers, serves as a language of wider communication in Senegal and Mauritania.


Zulu, with 7 million speakers, is the language of the largest indigenous ethnic group in newly reconstituted South Africa.