Lemurs and Beyond: An Interview with Dr. Deb Reisinger

Malagasy taught at Duke for the first time

-By Charles Givens

September 21, 2022

Dr Deborah Reisinger has been at Duke since 2000 and is currently Associate Professor of the Practice in Romance Studies. She also directs Duke’s Language Outreach Initiatives, overseeing the Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC) program and the Shared Course Initiative for Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL) with the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University.

Our office highlighted her course “Malagasy 101/701” in our most recent newsletter. The course introduces students to the Malagasy language spoken by people in Madagascar and the Comoro Islands. We talked with Dr. Reisinger about her the class, and how it ties into research efforts at Duke and beyond.

The city of Antananarivo, Madagascar (Photo credit: Brent Ninaber)

Q: Could you describe the course and how it came about?

A: I was approached by two Duke graduate students trying to learn Malagasy on their own. I met with them and learned that there were others at Duke in this same situation, and that they had all been scraping together funds to hire a teacher from Madagascar for individual Zoom sessions. They’d run out of funding and were looking for a longer-term solution.

I knew of the Lemur Center, but I did not know that there are no fewer than four Duke labs directly involved in work in Madagascar — Charlie Nunn, Christine Drea, John Poulsen, and Anne Yoder — all have labs that conduct conservation-related research, and there is an on-going Bass Connections project related to the region as well. I took the idea of a course to the Office of Global Affairs, the Dean of Arts and Humanities and the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies, all of whom provided support for the Malagasy 701 pilot project that will run through this year.

A group of lemurs strike a pose at the Duke Lemur Center (Photo credit: Chuck Givens)

Q: Where is Malagasy spoken, and how many people speak it?

A: Malagasy is an Austronesian language spoken primarily in Madagascar. There are over 25 million native speakers, but very few opportunities to learn it. Only a handful of universities teach it in the United States, and there are no textbooks for English-language learners, so this will be part of our effort as well: developing materials to support learning about Madagascar.


Q: How does the language relate to other research and teaching efforts at Duke?

A: In addition to labs and projects studying evolutionary anthropology, tropical ecology, biodiversity and infectious diseases, the Duke Lemur Center is a world leader in research on lemurs, the most endangered mammals on the planet. Its staff and volunteers engage directly in research, conservation and education about Madagascar’s species, and many of these people conduct fieldwork in Madagascar. Teaching Malagasy at Duke is a natural complement to their work.

Q: You direct Duke’s Language Outreach Initiatives and oversee both the Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC) program and the Shared Course Initiative for Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL) with the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University. What does that work entail?

A: The outreach work I do entails identifying spaces of overlapping interests on our campus, including courses with international content that might benefit from perspectives produced in other languages. Rather than limiting our research to texts that are produced in English, we also study what Hindi, Arabic or French speakers write and say about an issue.

While the LCTL initiative teaches the first four semesters of a given language, CLAC tutorials are designed for more proficient speakers who deepen their learning about a particular subject by accessing texts. We house these 1/2 credit courses in Environmental Studies, Global Health, Public Policy, and the Markets and Management Studies certificate program. This spring, we will be offering new courses: one in Spanish on the Mexican singer Selena, and a suite of tutorials in Public Policy that will focus on linguistic and cultural policies, citizenship and immigration.


Q: Why is it important to teach lesser-taught languages to our students?

A: Approximately 90% of U.S. students take one of four languages: French, German, American Sign Language and Spanish. Yet that leaves most languages spoken around the globe inaccessible by learners: only 10% of U.S, students study languages that are spoken by most of the world. In other words, less commonly taught languages may be less commonly taught, but not less commonly spoken. They are no less important.

A truly global institution such as Duke needs to offer a wide array of languages, so as not to flatten the world into a few linguistic clusters. Less Commonly Taught Languages are key to understanding other ways of seeing, thinking and being in the world. For students interested in the history, culture, ecology or politics of a particular region or country, language is arguably the way to truly access these disciplines.

To learn more about Duke’s Language Outreach Initiatives, head to https://sites.duke.edu/clac