Harvard will hire a preceptor to teach Tagalog, marking the first time the University will offer courses in the language.
The Department of South Asian Studies will hire three preceptors to teach Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesian, and Thai, for course offerings starting the 2023-24 academic year.
While Thai and Indonesian are currently taught at Harvard, no courses are offered in Tagalog, the fourth most spoken language in the United States.
The Harvard University Asia Center secured financial support for the positions through fundraising efforts, according to Executive Director Elizabeth K. Liao. The positions will be three-year term appointments for each preceptor and are renewable for up to five additional years.
James Robson, a professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and director of the Asia Center, said the administration was able to get one million dollars from the Asia Center’s budget to fund the Tagalog preceptor position; however, he added that funding the position after three years would be “probably not entirely sustainable.”
“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,” Liao wrote in an email.
Currently, Harvard does not have a Southeast Asian Studies department. In the 2022-23 course offerings, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences offers one course on the Philippines, which is a survey course of the history of Southeast Asia.
Robson said the Asia Center has spent more than two years working to increase education about Southeast Asia at Harvard.
“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,” Robson said.
Jorge Espada, associate director for Southeast Asia Programs at the Asia Center, said his team noticed a lack of Southeast Asian studies and language course offerings when they conducted a survey of all such resources at Harvard.
“Most Southeast Asian languages are taught as part of a tutorial format within the Department of South Asian Studies,” he said. “We wanted to see if we could have these languages taught by a preceptor-level position to professionalize the instruction, to make it more consistent, and to generate enthusiasm for it at Harvard.”
Eleanor V. Wikstrom ’24, co-president of the Harvard Philippine Forum and a Crimson Editorial chair, said getting Tagalog offered has been one of the goals for “as long as HPF has been in existence.”
HPF has petitioned Harvard administrators to offer courses in Tagalog, according to Wikstrom. In 2021, Wikstrom wrote an op-ed in The Crimson criticizing the lack of offerings in the Tagalog language at Harvard. She said she received pushback for her advocacy efforts and questions about the value of learning Tagalog.
“We’re working against a historical memory that is actively erasing the understanding of the importance of the Filipino-American relationship,” Wikstrom added.
HPF Co-President Marcky C. Antonio ’25 said securing Tagalog course offerings at Harvard was “a big win for the Filipino community back home,” adding that he hopes it will spur more academic exchanges between Harvard and the Philippines.
Although Antonio said he felt “elation” at the news of hiring a Tagalog preceptor, he also felt a “sense of hesitation.”
“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,” he said.
John U. Ficek ’25 said he wanted to learn Tagalog when he first arrived at Harvard, but he was “surprised” to learn that it was not offered. He said a Tagalog class would “help out a lot” for Filipino students who grew up in the U.S. and never learned the language.
“I think the Filipino heritage is very rich and very interesting, and I’m very proud to have that as my background,” Ficek said. “I’m looking forward to having other people learn about it.”
Aaron J. Arlanza ’26 said he was “grateful” and “relieved” to hear of the new preceptor position, saying it was important for Filipino representation at Harvard.
“I think that’d be a step in the right direction for elevating not only Filipino students here at Harvard, but also the influence that the Philippines and Filipino culture has here on campus,” Arlanza said.
Both Wikstrom and Antonio said they want to continue advocating for increased Filipino representation at Harvard.
“We have further responsibility to push this now that we know that this is possible,” Wikstrom said. “So we’re not going to stop at Tagalog.”
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