Academics People and Community

International graduate students help others learn new languages

Drawing from the University’s pool of bilingual talent, the Directed Independent Language Study program has offered not-for-credit lessons in languages from Arabic to Zulu.
Frimpong Nana Asamoah
This fall, Frimpong Nana Asamoah will help two other graduate students learn Akan/Twi, the language spoken in southern and central Ghana.

When Frimpong Nana Asamoah began his doctoral studies 5,000 miles from his home in Ghana, he assumed he’d rarely hear his native language. So, he jumped at the opportunity to help two other University of Miami graduate students learn Akan/Twi this fall.

“Oh wow! This is for me,” Asamoah remembers thinking when he opened the email announcing that the Directed Independent Language Study (DILS) program was looking for native speakers to converse in the most prevalent dialect in his West African homeland. “When I saw the message, I was really pleased. I was very happy to know people in the U.S. want to learn my mother language.”

In Asamoah’s case, the people happen to be fellow graduate students who also are pursuing Ph.D.s in African history and have research interests in Ghana. But it took the College of Arts and Sciences’ DILS program to bring them and their mutual linguistic interests together.

“As soon as I heard about the program, I knew I had to take advantage of it,” said Giltrecia Head, a Tallahassee native who earned her master’s degree in American dance studies at Florida State University. “A lot of my work looks at cultural connections in African-American culture preserved from Africa, and certain archives in Ghana require me to have some competency in the language. So, to be able to study Twi at UM is amazing and convenient.”

Since launching DILS in Spring 2009 with just three languages—Haitian Creole, Levantine Arabic, and Russian—founding director Maria Kosinski has matched hundreds of students who were interested in learning a language the University does not offer for credit with international graduate students like Asamoah who are eager to help them learn it. 

Earning a small stipend to serve as language partners, the graduate students meet with up to five students twice a week to engage in hour-long discussions designed to improve oral competence and comfort in the target language. They are not teachers in the traditional sense; their students are expected to study on their own, with materials provided by DILS. But by correcting grammar and pronunciation during real-life conversations, language partners are the backbone of the program.

“I rely entirely on willing and able international graduate students,” said Kosinski, who is currently looking for language partners in Swahili and Vietnamese for the fall semester. “They are usually very gifted and super-enthusiastic people who care about sharing their language. That’s a big factor in DILS’ success—that the University of Miami attracts so many talented graduate students from around the world.”

Since DILS’ inception, an average of nearly 70 students from across the University have applied to learn a language on their own every semester. And, over the years, Kosinski has managed to find language partners for nearly 40 of the languages—from Hawaiian to Hindi, Korean to Quechua, and Swedish to Zulu. But after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the world last March, applications dropped to just nine for the Fall 2020 semester, and the program was suspended.

When DILS returned with online sessions in Spring 2021, only 33 students applied, and finding them eligible language partners was challenging. But even though it has yet to be decided if DILS sessions will continue on Zoom, or on campus, this fall, Kosinski expects applications, which are still being accepted, to increase—especially given the growing interest in languages. According to data compiled by the free Duolingo language app, more than 30 million people around the world set out to learn a new language during the first weeks of the pandemic lockdown.  

Kosinski, who says she’s embarrassed she knows “only” four languages, is not surprised. “Learning a new language is not only about gaining linguistic competence but about experiencing a sense of connectedness,” she said. “I think the pandemic heightened that need. But we always have students who want to learn the language of their families, or for their research, for study or work abroad, or just personal enrichment.”

The daughter of Kenyan immigrants, sophomore Caroline Mwenda said connecting to her family roots was her primary motivation for applying to DILS to learn Swahili. But after switching majors to health policy and management last semester, she began thinking about working in Kenya to strengthen its heath sector, making learning the language even more important.

“I tried to do it on my own with Duolingo, but I know it’d be so much better with real-life conversations,” said Mwenda, who is hopeful Kosinski finds her a Swahili language partner. “So, when I heard about DILS I said, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do because I really want to learn it, but without the pressure of being graded.”

The absence of grades was a big draw for Christian C. Steputat, a doctoral candidate in structural and materials engineering who, after three semesters of DILS sessions, can speak Russian at an upper intermediate level.

“I wanted to learn Russian because Russia is the source of significant engineering research and producers of unique construction materials in my area of interest,” Steputat said. “But a Ph.D. program is very intense. And that’s the beauty of DILS, we don’t get grades for it, so there’s no added pressure. And it really works. What you get out of it is critical and fluent speaking ability—how you really interact with people. You don’t learn words nobody uses anymore, and you communicate on a cultural level.”

Although DILS students aren’t graded on their progress, their language study is noted on their transcript if they take the oral proficiency tests administered by an outside examiner who specializes in the target language. 

And now Asamoah, who was named best Twi student at Steadfast Academy, his junior high in Obuasi, Ghana, said he’s looking forward to helping future Twi speakers impress those examiners.

“This is not work for me,” he said. “We are supposed to correct grammar and pronunciation, but we are talking—which is fun. And I’ll be helping others who want to do research in my homeland. So, that’s rewarding.” 

To learn a specific language through the Directed Independent Language Study program complete the application. To apply for a position as a language partner, contact Maria Kosinski at