The Teaching of Albanian at Columbia University

By Prifti, Peter; Kondi, Rafaela | East European Quarterly, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The Teaching of Albanian at Columbia University


Prifti, Peter, Kondi, Rafaela, East European Quarterly


Among institutions of higher learning in America, the place of honor in the teaching of Albanian--certainly from a chronological standpoint--goes to Columbia University in New York. Albanian began to be taught there as early as 1932, about three decades after the arrival of the first Albanian immigrants to this country.

New York harbor has entered the folklore of America not the least because it is the site of Ellis Island, the storied point of debarkation for tens of millions of immigrants from Europe. Many of those millions fanned out in neighboring towns and states in search of settlements. But other stayed in and around New York City, swelling the populations of boroughs like Brooklyn and the Bronx. The new arrivals brought with them numerous foreign languages and idioms, and this fact has been reflected through the years in the language programs of Columbia University.

One of the most impressive facts about Columbia is that more languages (71, at last count) are taught there than at any other university in the country. In that favorable linguistic environment Albanian, too, found a niche a Columbia for a period of roughly three decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s.

BACKGROUND DATA ON COLUMBIA

Situated on New York's Morningside Heights in upper Manhattan, Columbia is the nation's fifth oldest university. It was founded in 1754 under a charter granted by King George III of England, in whose honor it was named King's College. In 1784 the name was changed to Columbia College. It retained that name until 1912, when the college was officially incorporated as Columbia University. By virtue of its prestigious scholastic standing, Columbia is recognized as one of the eight "Ivy League" colleges of America.

Few people know that a renowned alumnus of Columbia, Clement C. Moore, author of the beloved Christmas classic, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," is also the author of a full-length biography of Albania's national hero, Scanderbeg.(1) Moore was fascinated by Albania's medieval warrior, who for a quarter of a century held the Ottoman Turks at bay and kept the country free of Ottoman domination.

INSTRUCTION IN ALBANIAN

As mentioned earlier, Albanian began to be taught at Columbia in 1932. The teaching of the exotic Indo-European language apparently carried some weight, since it made news in the pages of The New York Times. A brief notice in the paper, dated January 6, 1932, said:

   A course in the Albanian language, the first, it is believed, to be
   presented in an American or English university will be offered in the
   university classes at Columbia during the Spring session.... Nelo Drizari,
   a native of Albania and a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism,
   will be the instructor.

Drizari taught Albanian at Columbia for 14 years, from 1932 to 1948, except for an interval of three years (1939-1942) during World War II. For a period of about five years, following the departure of Drizari from Columbia in 1948, there was a break in the teaching of Albanian at the university. But in 1954, the Albanian program was reinstated when a new instructor, Professor Stavro Skendi, was appointed to the post formerly held by Drizari. Skendi kept Albanian alive at Columbia for six years, from 1954 until 1960-61.

BIO SKETCH OF DRIZARI

Nelo Drizari (1902-1978) stands out as pioneer in the teaching of Albanian at American educational institutions. Born in Albania, he came to the United States in his youth, and apparently with a strong interest in language and writing. He developed his skills in those areas as a student at Columbia's School of Journalism. Following graduation, he won an appointment to teach Albanian at the university, beginning in 1932. He continued at his post until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. That year he seems to have taken a leave of absence from his teaching duties at Columbia. For the duration of the war, he was chairman of the Albanian Unit of the U. …

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