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South Asian Programs

The Department of Asian Languages and Cultures offers instruction in Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Urdu.


Why Study Bengali? 

Bengali with 189 million native speakers ranks as the seventh most spoken language of the world. It is the official language of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. Bengali belongs to the Indo-European language family and like many other Indian languages, has Sanskrit as its ancestor. Bengali is closely related with Hindi and Punjabi as they use the similar script, common vocabulary derived from Sanskrit, and same word order. Bengali has a rich literary tradition that dates back to 12th century. The famous Bengali philosopher and poet Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913. The Bengali movie industries known as Tollywood (India) and Dhallywood (Bangladesh) are very popular because they produce good quality movies.

Why Study Hindi?

There are 260 million speakers of Hindi, making it the fifth most spoken language in the world. Outside of India, it is spoken by a substantial population in Bangladesh, the UK, the US, and thirteen other nations. Hindi has been one of the two official languages of India after Independence. Hindi script is similar to Bengali and Punjabi. It shares many linguistic features with other Indic languages that have Sanskrit as their common ancestor. It has an old and rich literature that dates back to late Medieval period. Hindi is also the main language of the Bollywood film industry, which produces an astounding number of movies on a variety of topics every year. The Bollywood movie industry has greatly contributed to popularise Hindi around the world.

 Why Study Punjabi?

Punjabi has more than 90 million native speakers around the world and ranks as the tenth most spoken language in the world. It has an old literature that dates back to eleventh century. Punjabi is the language of sacred scriptures of the Sikhs, the official language of the state of Punjab (India), and a language of Sikh and Sufi mysticism and of regional literature among Punjabi Muslims in Pakistan. In Canada, Punjabi is the fourth largest spoken language after English, French, and Chinese, while in the USA it is spoken by about half a million Punjabi and Sikh immigrants. It shares many linguistic features with other Indic languages that have Sanskrit as their common ancestor. Punjabi taught here in Gurmukhi script has some similarities to Hindi. The Punjabi program at the University of Michigan is the oldest in the US.

 Why Study Sanskrit?

Sanskrit is the gateway to premodern, and especially pre-Islamic, India. It also served as a language of culture and religion and as a lingua franca in Central, East, and particularly Southeast Asia. It was carried into those regions along with the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism. The position of Sanskrit in Asia can be likened to that of Latin in medieval and early modern Europe. Sanskrit is recognized as one of the official languages of India and every university there has a Sanskrit department. Sanskrit is of great value to the cultural self-definition of Hindu communities that have now spread across the globe. To children of Indian cultural background, Sanskrit opens the door to their classical culture. To academic students of Sanskrit, it is a gateway to the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and to the pre-modern history of the subcontinent and beyond. Discovery of Sanskrit by the west in 1770s led to the development of Indo-European linguistics and reconstruction of the Indo-European language family and the cultural and religious pre-histories of Europe.  Thus, the historical understanding of languages such as English requires some understanding of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is also the ancestor of a number of the South Asian languages taught at the University of Michigan, including Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu.

 Why Study Tibetan?

Tibetan literature has an uninterrupted history of at least 1300 years. It includes a vast corpus of indigenous works of great value for the academic study of literary genres, religious praxis, state formation, and the development of canonical systems.  Classical Tibetan is duly famous as the medium for the largest, and most accurate, body of translations of Buddhist texts from India, the majority of which are lost in the original Indian languages. In addition to being essential for the study of Tibetan history, literature, art and religion, classical Tibetan is of scholarly value for the study of South Asian culture and history, Chinese history, and historical linguistics. Modern Tibetan is spoken by a population of approximately six million, in the Tibet Autonomous Region of the China, in other Tibetan cultural regions of China, and in the Tibetan diaspora (with speakers concentrated in India and Nepal, but found increasingly in Europe and North America). With the recent opening of Tibet to foreign travel and research, knowledge of modern Tibetan has become essential for students of any aspect of the region. There are numerous (and mutually unintelligible dialects) of modern spoken Tibetan, and the study of these dialects — essential for the study of cultural practices such as pilgrimage — is becoming an area of research at several institutions, including the University of Michigan.

*Tibetan will not be taught in the 2016-2017 academic year. Please contact the department for more information*

 Why Study Urdu?

Urdu with more than 68 million native speakers ranks as the eighteenth most spoken language in the world. It is the national language of Pakistan and one of the official languages of six India states. Urdu shares many linguistic features with other Indic languages who have Sanskrit as their ancestor, however it uses Perso-Arabic script. It has a rich literature including a very popular form of love poetry called Ghazal, devotional and Sufi poetry. Urdu has also been used in Indian movies since the start of the movie industry.