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Camille DeSisto holds vials during her research trip to Madagascar in summer 2022.
Camille DeSisto on her fourth research trip to Madagascar

Last summer, ecology PhD student Camille DeSisto went on her fourth research trip to Madagascar. As the only non-native on her team for much of the trip, knowing how to speak Malagasy, one of the island country’s official languages, was critical for interacting with her local teammates.

“We would come back from a sweaty day in the field, and everyone would sit around the campfire, chit-chatting,” DeSisto said. “That’s when I definitely learned the most Malagasy, and I could also help teach some of my collaborators some more English skills. It was really fun and really useful.”

DeSisto has been studying the ecology and conservation of lemurs and plants in Madagascar since 2017. That year, she visited the country for the first time to conduct research as an undergraduate student at Harvard University and started learning Malagasy. Now a graduate student in the Poulsen Tropical Ecology Lab, DeSisto helped ignite the effort to form a class on Malagasy.

Four Duke labs are involved in research in Madagascar, and the Duke Lemur Center has been working in Madagascar for over 35 years, but this past fall semester was the first time Duke offered a Malagasy language course. The initiative to create the course was spearheaded by DeSisto and Caroline Shearer, both evolutionary anthropology & ecology Ph.D. students whose research relates to the region. 

Caroline Shearer holds a Malagasy dictionary
Caroline Shearer holding a Malagasy dictionary

“If you want to conduct equitable and effective research in Madagascar, I think that speaking Malagasy is important,” DeSisto said. “From the beginning, I have always thought that it’s a huge priority to try and learn the language. It’s just tricky because there’s a lack of formalized resources.” 

Before the course’s inception, DeSisto and other students used funding from the Duke University Graduate Working Group on Global Issues to run a Malagasy language and culture working group. Through the group, students were tutored over Zoom by Lôlô Henri Rafidiniaina, who founded Malagasy Lessons for Expats. DeSisto and Shearer connected through the group, and sought to create a long-term program for Duke students to learn Malagasy, so they advocated for a formal class. 

“French is the most commonly spoken language in Madagascar other than Malagasy, but if you go into a remote area, not everyone will be fluent in French,” Shearer said. “Almost everyone regularly speaks Malagasy, so formally learning the language is both an essential and amazing opportunity.”

The two reached out to Associate Professor of the Practice Deb Reisinger, the director of Duke’s Language Outreach Initiatives, who oversees the Shared Course Initiative for Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL)

“There was immediate interest on the part of administrators, faculty, staff, and departments to support this,” Reisinger said. “It might seem like this is a language that hardly anybody speaks or that it’s so far away, but there are actually a lot of connections right here on campus, which makes it really exciting.”

Tendry Randriamanana, a native Malagasy speaker, was recruited to teach the course. She has previously volunteered to teach Malagasy at the University of Helsinki and more recently to missionaries working in Madagascar. She also has a background in plant biology, which has helped her relate to the students who are taking the class and intending to do research in Madagascar. 

“I hope that more students will join the course, and that also more researchers will be interested about Madagascar, its language and culture, and do more research there.” Randriamanana said.

Those involved hope that the Malagasy language program will continue, but that depends on student interest. Next year, as part of the Shared Course Initiative for LCTL, Duke’s Malagasy course will also be offered to students at Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia.

Classmates from Duke's first Malagasy language course pose together for a photo.
The students and instructor (center) of Duke's first Malagasy course gathered at the end of the semester last fall to play traditional Malagasy games. 

“One of the challenges of less commonly taught languages is securing enrollment in the course,” Reisinger said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn a language that is taught almost nowhere in the United States, but that is spoken by millions of people and has a rich culture and really interesting linguistic makeup.” 

With Duke’s strong connection to research in Madagascar, DeSisto hopes that more members of the community will decide to take the course.

“We need to make sure that we’re engaging with people in an ethical way, and communication is really important for that,” DeSisto said. “Just speaking the language does not mean you’re doing ethical research, but I think it’s an important step in doing that—not only in communicating with research colleagues, but also local communities and science communication.”


Top photo: Camille DeSisto (second from right) with her colleagues on her most recent research trip to Madagascar