Obies Using Languages

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.

Obie Using Languages: Claire Shank ’17

Claire Shank (bottom right corner) is currently a third year in Oberlin, majoring in East Asia Studies with a minor in History. She has lots of interests in a wide range including animation, costuming, art, and global pop culture. Claire has also researched on prosody and lexical ambiguity in standard mandarin. This summer, she went to Kunming, China, for a Chinese-intensive program. Here she shared her experience in that program where she learned more than just the language.

I’ve always taken a very bull-like approach to learning languages: charging my problems head on, consistently, stubbornly, and doing it by burying my head in a book. I let any imperfections fuel me to work harder. I thought if I wasn’t the best, it’s because I just didn’t work hard enough. Of course this way of thinking has some drawbacks, but in the past I’d always thought that the pros outweighed the cons. Before I left the country in June, the most common academic advice I’d been given was to “calm down”, and to “take some deep breaths”. I always answered back “I’m not a calm person”. Then I would think to myself, is there really such a thing as too much studying? After the summer I spent in Kunming, China, I feel like I understand the answer to that question a bit better.


In the CET Middlebury program in Kunming, I took intensive classes for about 5 hours a day. I struggled a lot in class, and frequently felt as if my Chinese was terrible, or even the worst in the program. My solution of course, was to then struggle every day afterschool, into the night, and early the next morning, trying to catch up to the level of the top students. I was scared to speak in class, even more scared than I had been in my classes back home, because I knew I would make mistakes, and I knew that even though my classmates had been out drinking with new friends the night before, and I had been pouring over vocab alone, I wasn’t going to be able to speak like them, or write like them, and I couldn’t understand why.

About halfway through the program, all the writing and studying I had done took a physical toll on my body. I got severe tendonitis in my wrists, and writing Chinese characters became almost impossible for me to do without severe pain. The doctor, unsurprisingly, took one look at me, and told me I needed to “calm down”. I didn’t think there was any way I possibly could, but I decided I would try.

Since I couldn’t write, that means that I needed to speak more. I started going out a bit more, reading in cafes and befriending a couple of the people in town. A woman sewing her own line of clothes, two shopkeepers VERY excited to use their shop’s new selfie stick with me, a nervous boy from Dali who loved to talk about his family. The more I spoke, the better I felt. I realized all these people could understand me, and I could understand them. My Chinese wasn’t terrible, and I wasn’t the worst at it. In fact, I could use it to make friends. By locking myself in my room with homework all day, I had also locked myself up with all my insecurities about speaking the language and made myself too anxious and scared to use my Chinese to do anything at all.
When I left Kunming, I wished I’d had more time. I was grateful to get myself home to more familiar medical care for my wrists, but I felt as if instead of being at the end of my journey, my experiences abroad were just starting to begin. There were all sorts of students with unique natural talents and exciting interests and skills, there was a world around me filled with fascinating people, a gorgeous neighborhood, great food, and endless history, but had I struggled so hard with wanting good grades and wanting to “catch up” to my own high standards that I only had a few weeks where I really let myself explore at all. I truly am happy and proud of the progress I have made. The best thing I took back to Ohio with me was the ability to speak casual Chinese without fear. I finally feel like I can use the language to express myself, instead of constantly testing myself.

Bywriting this I think the most important thing I learned was simply a reminder of the rather trite but very true life lesson that learning is not always about books and grades. When you’re learning a language, you need to get out into the world and use it. Let yourself make mistakes, make new connections, and that’s how you can start to really understand language and culture. If you’re not using a language to communicate, then really, what are you learning it for?

Obies Using Languages: Georgia Lederman ’16

Georgia Lederman (on the right) is a senior at Oberlin College.

Where were you this past semester?

I was in Paris for 4 months and then Avignon, a city in the south of France for 2 months.

What were you doing there?

I did a study abroad program called CUPA while in Paris, and a program run by Bryn Mawr College during the summer. During the fall, I took classes at the Sorbonne and University of Paris 8. I was in class with French students, studying translation, comparative literature, education and French Islam.  During the summer I took literature and philosophy courses with other American students in the heart of Avignon, which is a historically rich city.

What sounds were unique to the area you studied in?

Many. However, one that stands out is this unexpected inhalation that got me off guard. Occasionally, the french make this unfamiliar inward breath when they are saying the word “oui”. It is usually while someone else is speaking. At first exposure, I thought that I was talking to a weirdo with a bizarre mannerism—a nervous habit perhaps. But then I started to notice the asthmatic quality in multiple people’s speech and realized that it was “normal.” Additionally, I started to be able to pick apart the intricacies of the “Paris accent” as opposed to the southern way of speaking. At the risk of sounding critical, I would characterize the Paris style as having a brisk and perky element, whereas the southerners speak perhaps more horizontally, involving their nasal cavity a bit more if that makes any sense.

What is an instance when a friend or stranger showed you kindness?

I had my bag stolen. In the bag was my passport, 2 credit cards, my student ID, my metro card, money, the keys to my host family’s apartment, and possibly a piece of paper on which the address to the apartment was written. This meant that my host family had to re-do their lock system. However, despite this severe inconvenience, when I got home, my host mom hugged me and opened a bottle of beer. Maternal kindness goes a long way.

On another occasion I was feeling very lonely and isolated and the director of my program dropped everything she was doing to talk to me and help me get to the root of my home-sickness.

What meal or type of food would you try again?

As much as I am ashamed to say it, escargot is fantastic and so is “canard.” Escargot is often prepared in a garlic pesto, olive oil sauce. I was a vegetarian for about three days in France… My host father made a wonderful magret du canard (duck breast) and would cook small potatoes in the grease. I will not forget it.

Another amazing meal was one that I prepared when my Oberlin friend, Raffi Boden, came to visit me in the South of France. We went to the market and got fresh figs, fresh local goat cheese, smoked salmon and crusty French bread. We compiled little tartines for our appetizer and it was heavenly.

What words in French do you enjoy saying?

I like saying “déjà-vu” because the way that Americans say dejavous is a completely different pronunciation than the french way. The ou and u were REALLY challenging for me to master and I found that using a hand gesture helped me achieve the right “u”. So I like saying that word because it allows me to completely inhabit my “french self.”

Do you enjoy speaking French?

I love it. It’s like wearing clothes that are slightly different from your normal style, or experimenting with new ingredients while cooking. It’s like taking a vacation from normal thinking patterns. And when words flow and the accent clicks, it just feels good.

What were some odd quirks about a professor of yours? Can’t think of a good answer.

What rules in the French classroom were new to you?

Three hours. No peeing. No leaving. Also, for the most part, students were not encouraged to question the teacher. The most common questions began with “can you repeat what you said about…”

Where in the world would you like to spend your time next?

Honestly, among my friends and family. I would love to go back to the south of France–maybe Avignon again, or maybe Aix-en-Provence. I am also very curious about other Francophone countries. I would love to be able to use my French to understand the world in as many ways as possible.


Obies Using Languages: Chris Nguyen ’15

Chris Nguyen (first to the left) is a member of the class of the 2015 who graduated with a double major in Economics and East Asian Studies. At Oberlin, he studied Japanese, and spent a semester away in Waseda University, Tokyo. He is currently a Shansi Fellow at J.F Oberlin University.


Obies Using Languages: Zoë Martens ’16

Zoë is a senior majoring in Comparative American Studies and minoring in Dance. Zoë spent last spring semester studying away on the Border Studies program.

Where did Zoë spend her semester abroad?

She spent her semester living in Arizona. She lived with her host family in Tucson and took trips around once a week on either side of the border. She took one two week travel seminar to visit and observe the Mexican-Guatemalan border to compare and contrast it with the U.S.-Mexican border.

What were some of the similarities and differences between the U.S.-Mexican border and the Mexican-Guatemalan border?

Zoë was surprised at how similar the borders are. Some points were porous, meaning people and goods could cross without coming into contact with a checkpoint or Border Patrol officers. Her and her peers spent some time near a river crossing where people transferred goods across the water to get them across the border. She saw the militarization of the border and the periodic prevalence of military checkpoints on the Mexican-Guatemalan border which paralleled the U.S.-Mexican border ripe with trucks, guns, and Border Patrol officers. Zoë and her peers studied how the U.S. channels money to the Guatemalan government to heighten border control on the Guatemalan-Mexican border to prevent people seeking citizenship in the United States. We see South Americans being detained in Mexico similar to how Mexicans are detained in the U.S.

What place would Zoë like to return to & why?

She would like to return to El Paso, Texas. The Border Studies program was originally based near the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez juncture. Ciudad Juarez has too much violence for the program to continue in that location. Zoë, however, learned from her time there. She described how the border felt much more immediate and saw organizing work as much more connected to that immediacy: there was an immediate need and therefore an immediate response.

She visited a community day center which housed resources for migrant workers: showers, baths, information on labor rights and fellow migrant workers. The center was close to a large pedestrian bridge that was high off the ground for day laborers to make the trip into the U.S. in the morning and back into Mexico in the evening. The program used to have the students make this trip every day to school so that they could begin to learn about the daily process of crossing the border.

Where did Zoë struggle the most?

One of their first trips to Mexico, they stayed the night at migrant shelter. All the students struggled with what their role was being there. They would stand behind the chair they would like to sit at during meals and the migrants would file in afterwards to choose where they would like to sit. Conversations at meals revealed that migrants were very grateful and surprised that American students wanted to listen to their stories. Zoë and her peers questioned whether the migrants felt they had agency, the choice to talk with the students or if they felt pressured into sharing about their lives because of the students’ privileged position.

How was Zoë’s relationship to language shaped by her semester abroad?

Zoë spoke Spanish exclusively with her host parents and English with her host siblings. Speaking Spanish is outlawed in Arizona public schools so there may have been a generational difference between her host parents and siblings. Zoë felt unsure how to navigate this language gap because she was not certain whether her parents could understand what her and her siblings were talking about.

When did Zoë feel like crying?

She had an amazing opportunity to visit a detention center through connections made by her peers in organizations they volunteered with. Zoë and her peers had conversations with detainees. There was a ubiquitous sense of confusion, what is there to say? Zoë described the heightened security ranging from walking through metal detectors, being sniffed by K-9 dogs, and having time limits on the visits. Zoë observed how differently the agents treated visitors versus detainees. Most agents would yell at detainees while speaking at conversation level with visitors. Her experiences at the detention center revealed just how inhumane undocumented people are treated within the detention center system. Zoë learned that many of the detained undocumented people rarely saw visitors because their family was far away. Her experiences at the detention center certainly opened her eyes to the horrors of the United State’s immigration policy and militarized border.

What is one sweet moment Zoë shared with a person she met on her semester abroad?

Zoë was really close with her ten year old host sister. Her sister made Zoë feel comfortable in her home. One day the two of them visited the local children’s museum. This was the first time that her sister had ridden the bus without her mom and they both had fun interacting with the museum exhibits. Zoë hopes to return in five years to Arizona for her sister’s quinciñera.

How does the Border Studies experience inform Zoë about life in Oberlin and her future?

Zoë learned how leaving immediacy makes it easy to become apathetic.  Zoë has to find the right ways to be involved with immediacy since it is easy to feel untouched by the struggle in Oberlin College. Zoë could look for work as a Border Studies alum in migrant shelters or related ways near the border after she leaves Oberlin. She hopes to continue feeling more connected to the border and the network of people fighting to demilitarize the border and stop deportations.