Punjabi gets pride of place on University of California campuses


All University of California (UC) campuses will now offer Punjabi language courses, after approximately eight years of work from students, alumni, and many others in an effort that broached generations and the boundaries of the school.

This is a historic project — the first fully online course for a South Asian language taught across the UC system and one of the first in US higher education,” a project description released by contributing members said.

Harfateh Singh, a UC Davis alum and former board member of the Sikh Cultural Association at the school, was one of the many advocates behind the eventual launch of the Punjabi language courses.

He said that the work began approximately eight years ago when he saw a lecture by someone from UC Santa Barbara, one of only a couple of UC schools that already offered Punjabi classes, and thought it would be beneficial to give students at the UC Davis the same opportunity.

Out of the eight or nine campuses, UC Davis has the largest Sikh Punjabi student population,” Singh said.

It’s not as well renowned as UC Berkeley or UCLA, but it is the go to place for a lot of folks from Central Valley and Bay Area. Punjabi is our most spoken language in Central Valley.”

Singh told indica News that he and colleagues began speaking to the school administration, but for the first couple years of the effort the group didn’t gain much traction.

Around the year 2015, Singh was contacted by Dr Nicole Ranganath, a professor in the Middle East and South Asia studies department at UC Davis, who recruited him into an informal team that was able to renew the urgency of the issue.

Dr Jasbir Kang, an internist in Yuba City, California, also worked with Ranganath in support of the creation of Punjabi language classes.

Unlike Singh’s efforts as a student and member of the Sikh Cultural Association, Kang’s efforts fell more into the category of community organizing.

UC Davis was probably the right place to start these efforts because Punjabi Americans have been in this area for 125 to 130 years,” Kang told indica News. “There’s a large concentration of Punjabi-speaking Americans in the region. There was a lot of support at the grassroots level.”

Both Singh and Kang spoke of the difficulties in convincing the UC of strong student interest in Punjabi language courses.

The logistics of getting an in-person class started are very difficult because administrations don’t want to get into these classes that aren’t properly enrolled and would lose money,” Singh said.

However, the students were extremely engaged in showing their support and desire to learn despite the university’s doubts, Kang said.

Singh said the recent launch of the course feels surreal, but he also feels thankful to the university and community and hopes to build on the accomplishment in the future with intermediate and mass courses.

The collaboration is really just massive and that really inspires me and makes me feel grateful,” Singh said.

I’m happy that my nephews and nieces and cousins are able to learn, not just about the language, but learn about the culture and heritage and celebrate it.”

Kang said that this opportunity to learn the Punjabi language strengthens America and can allow students to understand the rest of the world better

American people represent migrants from all over the world,” Kang said.

It’s important for us as Americans to understand different heritages, different languages, and that makes America a better country.”

While UC Davis was the lead campus on the project, titled Punjabi Without Walls, it also saw major contributions from individuals located at UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine and UC Riverside.

The development of the course was made possible by an Innovative Technology Learning Initiative Grant awarded by the UC Office of the President, and the course is funded independently from the grant through contributions from other UC campuses, according to the project description.

Dr Nirvikar Singh from UC Santa Cruz, Dr Sudipta Sen from the department of Middle East and South Asia studies at UC Davis and Ranganath as well helped secure the grant.

Classes for the winter quarter have already begun, marking the official launch of the first introductory Punjabi course. The development of the courses themselves entailed a mass collaboration of different talents and skill sets.

Palvinder Kaur, a doctorate student at UC Davis studying educational leadership, was brought onto the curriculum development team back in March 2020. While at the time her Punjabi speaking skills were mostly conversational, she had done work with the Punjabi community for about a decade.

Kaur was able to learn how to read and write Punjabi during her time on the team. However, one of her major contributions was helping to make the curriculum as relevant as possible for the audience of students it was being developed for.

One of the very intentional pieces that I am really grateful for in this coursework is as we go to quarters two and three and the classes progress, really just the intentionality of addressing community issues like mental health and wellbeing, social justice issues,” Kaur said.

These topics, while somewhat untraditional in the context of a language class but very relevant in the modern world, were prioritized as the course was developed.

For example, some of the team’s discourse centered on the lack of vocabulary terms in Punjabi for topics like misogyny, sexism, racism and class inequalities.

We were really deliberate about the ways we challenged the norms,” Kaur said.

I was really appreciative because I constantly wear my very critical hat in all of these areas and especially with our community, so I was really glad to be able to have those conversations.”

The course’s relevance to its students is also tailored to their everyday activities.

Even when they’re talking about daily routines, the terms are related to college life,” Kaur said.

The yearlong course, comprising 15 topics broken into modules, employs a variety of materials to provide students with an interactive learning experience. It supplements the professor’s teachings with coursework on Canvas and a program titled Captivate where students can learn and practice grammar.

Additionally, community members designed an app specifically for the course, which allows the students to keep flashcards and use their fingers to draw Gurmukhi script.

These were components that didn’t technically need to be designed for this course. When I say the community came together for this, I mean the community really came together for this.”

Other key players in the development of the curriculum were Pushpinder Kaur, the lead author on the curriculum, and Arshinder Kaur and Tejpaul Bainiwal, who contributed as Punjabi language experts, according to Nirvikar Singh.

Ranganath was involved as well, serving as the program manager.

It’s just been really, really great to see community members taking on the ownership, and especially women, to really lead this project,” Kaur said. “It was just so cooperative in nature, the experiences, the way in which everyone was just so flexible.”

The response to the curriculum was positive. Kaur and other team members held a seminar on their course with students and alumni in order to get their input. When the class was launched soon after, it filled up within 24 hours, Kaur said.

It’s a highly desired course,” Kaur said. “Students want to learn. There’s a lot of students who come from Punjabi backgrounds across the UC system.”

Moving forward, Kaur hopes the course is a stepping stone for further work in the community and increased communication across any language barriers of the past.

Our hope is that as these students are learning, they can communicate with their families or their grandparents back in the motherland,” Kaur said.

When I’ve written even small words or short sentences to my dad in Punjabi, there was a glow on his face because I didn’t have the opportunity to learn it as a child.”

Additionally, she hopes that the launch of the Punjabi language courses are a source of inspiration for future programs.

I really hope that other languages are included as well and the UC system sees the need for more curriculum that’s developed by the communities themselves to make sure that their narrative is really included,” Kaur said.