To get a better sense of how Obies use languages other than English, we’ve asked current students and alumni to fill out a brief survey and let us know what they’re up to, linguistically! Are you interested in participating in the project? Email us.
Obies Using Languages
Rebecca is a second year majoring in Comparative American Studies and minoring in Environmental Studies.
I’ve been learning French since 1st grade. [In 1st grade] we were singing and dancing, saying poems. I like how it was ingrained in me, not trying to learn grammar, just internalizing [the language.] When I was younger, I didn’t like the way German sounded. I always like the way French sounded. I wanted to keep developing it because I had already started it. I was lucky to have it offered wherever I was, at the different high schools I went to.
What are your current plans with French?
Right now I am really trying to get better at speaking and understanding. I want to go abroad, during my time here at Oberlin, to a French speaking country. I want to make [the French language] something more than just a daily class, where I learn more than just the language.
I am not sure how beyond school I want to use it yet. I want to be able to have another language. Maybe meeting people, working, traveling, I just feel like it will open a lot of doors. But I think it will become more clear to me once I become more fluent. As I get better it is exciting because now I can see that I can learn about what I care about in French. I can see French taking me in directions where I can learn about real stuff.
What history do you have with languages that are not English? Did you hear any near where you grew up?
I feel like I didn’t grow up in much but English. But a really cool experience I had with language was when I went to Italy, we lived in a little village where no one spoke English. I really used my French to communicate, it was really really fun to try to find different ways to communicate. A lot of things are similar in Italian and French. Maybe not til I was older when I traveled did I experience more about that. In Spain I realized how little French translated to Spanish. My friend from Mexico oftentimes translated for me.
What challenges you learning a language in a classroom setting?
I think that the focus on the way that tests and stuff are made up don’t really seem to be helpful. They do not [necessarily] translate into you speaking and writing well. Filling in the blank etc. Why aren’t we being challenged to use the language right away? This shifts the emphasis on the technical stuff, memorization, in a way you aren’t even really engaging in learning.
What suggestions would you give French teachers?
If the goal is for us to be speaking and writing in French, make what we are doing be tested in a way that we are speaking or writing. It doesn’t have to be fill in the blank, let it be not so dumbed down.
What is your favorite medium of French (reading, writing, talking, listening?)
I do like listening to French music and just being able to talk to friends where all of a sudden you can transition to another language is fun and feels very freeing. In light of all the recent events in France, we can look at different news sources and get another perspective on the attacks because of the language. We can see another side of the media that doesn’t come through in English.
Who would you like to speak French with?
Right now what’s great about it is [talking with] friends, once I get better I won’t have to rely on peers and teachers to slow down. Maybe I will be able to [speak] with people [who are native speakers] and really listen to and understand [them.]
When do you feel fulfilled while learning French?
I feel fulfilled when learning French in the classroom is very supportive, a light fun atmosphere. Especially when we are still learning fundamental basics, sometimes it’s boring like you learned in 1st grade, but keeping it light and fun and supportive of each other. I feel like I am actually able to learn when my peers are supporting me. It’s not about being perfect right now, you are messing up all the time publically, oftentimes we don’t know how to deal with that, so some people become too afraid to talk. You have to get into the mindset that I am literally going to mess up the sentence even though I might have a good idea.
Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Janovic
Jacob Firman is a senior majoring in Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College.
Describe the role of Spanish and/or indigenous languages in the communities you lived in this past semester.
Last semester, I participated in the Mexico Solidarity Network’s Mexican Social Movements program. While in Mexico, we learned from three of Mexico’s and Latin America’s most important social movements including the Zapatistas, Consejo Nacional Urbana y Campesino (CNUC), and El Frente Popular Francisco Villa Independiente (‘Los Panchos’). MSN filled a gaping hole in my education. At Oberlin I learned how to critique and analyze the system but I had no sense of how to change it. Coming out of the program, I feel an unprecedented sense of purpose, clarity, and direction. For the sake of this interview, I’ll focus on my experience in Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico.
In Oventic the dominant language is Tzo’tzil which is of Mayan origin. For most of the community as well as the guests, Spanish is a second language.
What are some notable phrases (i.e. idiomatic expressions) that you learned?
The preservation of indigenous languages is closely tied to the preservation of indigenous cultures and worldviews.
One of the most fascinating parts of Tzo’tzil is in the way it is grammatically organized, there are no objects. Everything is described as a relation between subjects. This structure reflects their worldview of relationships based on mutuality and interconnectedness as opposed to objectification which marks dominant U.S. culture.
The word am’tel describes all work that is necessary for maintaining life such as farming, cooking, cleaning, childcare, weaving, building, and healing. Whereas the word kanal refers to labor in the capitalist sense i.e. working for a boss, alienated from your labor and your community. The conception of labor in am’tel reflects an equal valuation of all kinds of labor including domestic labor which is often undervalued in our society.
Describe any challenges you faced in speaking Spanish: being perceived as a gringo speaking Spanish or feeling uncomfortable because of mistakes you made.
We were never referred to us as gringos or extranjeros by folks in Oventic. Instead they referred to us as internacionales (internationals) or compañeros. In their minds, an extranjero is someone whose heart and mind are distanced from than them, a factor which doesn’t necessarily have to do with where they are from.
Describe the role of music and singing in the communities you lived in this past semester.
Singing played a vital role in the community. At least once a week, we would come together and share songs ranging from anthems of rebellion to songs about moco (boogers). This was a way to collectively remember their history of struggle and keep its spirit alive while also finding ways to laugh and smile with each other.
Photo courtesy of: Jacob Firman. Jacob is third from the right in the photo above.
Monika Cecilia Franaszczuk is a second-year majoring in Eastern European Studies as well as Musical Studies. She grew up in a Polish/Mexican household, and as such was immersed in languages from a young age. Since then, she has been adding more languages to her repertoire.
Learning languages is simultaneously the greatest, and most frustrating endeavor that you can take on. There are moments when you’re struggling over some horridly overcomplicated grammatical structure, and there’s just this nagging thought in the back of your head that’s telling you that you’ll never be fluent and that you might as well just stick to your native language. But then there’s other times when something just clicks, and you can ‘feel’ what’s right and what’s not. And those moments, when you don’t have to pause to remember how to conjugate a certain verb or how to decline a certain noun, and can just come up with the right word because you know that it sounds right, are what I live for.
I’m in second year Russian at the moment. And let me tell you, it is by far the hardest language that I have ever had the pleasure of studying. Every time I speak or write I have to spend copious amounts of time overthinking which case the nouns take and how that case works exactly, and even worse, what aspect the verb should be in. And even taking all these pauses to think, something still inevitably comes out wrong. There are certain words that I’ve got down and can just use in normal speech, but for the most part there’s just this huge list of grammar rules in my mind that I have to be constantly referring to. And these rules don’t even account for the many, many, many exceptions. It’s incredibly frustrating to say the least.
See, languages have always come easily for me. My mother loves to attribute this to my musician’s ear and to my exposure to many languages in my early life. I’m a first generation American, with a Polish father and a Mexican mother, and as such, by the time I was three I was trilingual in English, Spanish, and Polish. I ended up losing my Polish however, after a change in living situation when my father began to work full-time and didn’t speak nearly as much Polish to me at home. (Which is a fact that I’ve almost begun to resent, given that I’m going into Eastern European studies and it would have been so nice to already know a Slavic language, since, like I’ve said, these languages are incredibly complicated to pick up grammatically . . . but that’s beside the point for now.)
In middle school, I began to learn German. The lessons began to really click with me after just about over one semester, and from then on, I didn’t really have to study for the class. Just listening in class was enough to ingrain the lessons in my mind. Then, after four years, my school cut its German program . . . Having few options I decided to pick up French pretty much on a whim. Given that French is a romance language just like Spanish, I got to the point where the language started to feel natural after just about two months.
And now here I am. In my third semester of Russian. And I still can’t quite grasp the essence of verb aspect or case declination. It’s the first time that I’ve had to properly study for a language class. Imagine that. I’m fully aware of how whiny that must sound, but that’s what frustrates me the most. I definitely have me better language days, and my worse, but it remains that Russian is hard. (Which is not to dissuade anyone from taking it up. It’s a lot of fun despite the horror of verbs of motion.) But you know, this frustration will just leave me all the more satisfied when I do finally begin to understand and feel the language.
And in the meantime, I’m starting to relearn my Polish in my free time. It’s got the same verb aspect as Russian, as well as seven whole cases in comparison to Russian’s six. Wish me luck . . .
Mo is a sophomore majoring in Art History and may concentrate her study on curatorial art. She is planning to study away in Europe next year so she is learning both French and German.