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
Yiyin (Mia) Zhong is currently a second-year international student double-majoring in East Asian Studies and Comparative Literature. Mia enjoys learning languages. She believes learning language can help her to comprehend a culture deeper.
How many languages do you speak?
Chinese and English. I am learning Japanese and German right now.
How can you manage so many languages at the same time?
As for Chinese and English, I am already fluent in both languages so I don’t have to devote so much time in learning them. Japanese is not super difficult for me because it shares the same root as Chinese. For German… yeah, I kind of struggled there but as long as I follow the pace of my class I think I’ll be fine.
Why did you decide to learn Japanese or German?
First of all, I want to major in East Asian Studies and Japanese is one the requirement for EAS. Another reason that I chose Japanese was that I am also very interested in Japanese literature. When I also decided to study literature, I wanted to dig deeper on Japanese language. I didn’t have a clear reason to learn German, but it’s fun to learn a language entirely different from your own. I hope I can read some German literature as I continue learning.
What are the difficulties you have had in learning two languages at the same time or just in learning languages in general?
Languages sometimes mingle with each other. In German class, I always want to speak Japanese because it is much easier for me to speak. Also, I really don’t like memorizing vocabularies, which makes everything hard and new vocabulary keeps going out. Even though I have managed all the grammar points, I still cannot communicate in this language because I always need to stop and ask which word to use.
What do you think is the most effect way to learn a language?
Well, do your homework nicely every single day.
Are there any benefits, you think, to learn two languages at the same time?
Actually I find learning the two languages together sometimes disturbing as I come up with things in one language when I’m trying to speak in the other, but it’s fun to switch among the languages and different pronunciations and tones.
Why do you want to learn so many languages?
I enjoy learning languages. Some people would have the expectation that if I learn a language, I will use it at some point in the future because it’s a practical skill. I’m not sure if I can use all my languages and it’s a pity if I don’t have the chance to speak them and forget them all, but the learning process is still very fun. It’s like some courses you take in college which are fun but will probably be forgot in the future, you learn them anyway. Also, I can travel to Japan and Germany alone when I’m fluent in them.
Yan Yu is an Economics second year majoring in at Oberlin College.
Tell me about the languages you know and how you learned them.
I know Chinese (mandarin) and English. Chinese is my mother tongue. I learned English at school and also on my own (through reading, listening, etc).
What challenged you when you were learning English?
I think mostly the lack of English-speaking environment. At most Chinese schools English is taught in very rigid ways and there isn’t an organic environment to learn and practice. So It was hard for me to familiarize myself with the context of the language at school. And it took some time before I could understand more clearly about the logic and customs in English. Also vocabulary was kind of challenging when I started reading books in English.
How do you use Mandarin in your daily, weekly, or monthly life?
I read and communicate with people in Chinese on a daily basis.
How does your comfort change depending on which language you are speaking?
It’s hard to say. I think for me it’s more about the situation where I’m speaking rather than the actual language I use. Although sometimes I do need more time to find expressions for certain things in English.
How has learning English influenced the way you think or learn?
Through English I’m able to access more resources and understand about more parts of the world. And it’s useful in a “global language” kind of way.
Are you looking to learn any more languages in the future?
I am. Maybe French, maybe Portuguese, we’ll see.
Michael is a second year at Oberlin College majoring in Politics.
Describe the journey you’ve taken in learning Spanish. Where did it begin, where did you go and where have you ended up?
My journey learning spanish began last term in 101. My speaking ability and vocabulary improved when I went to El Salvador over winter term. Those three and a half weeks seemed to have a drastically more profound impact than the entire semester I was in 101. Now I am in 202 continuing to learn.
What motivates you to continue learning Spanish when learning gets frustrating or tough?
I am motivated to learn spanish because I feel that it is an important part of my education, both as a practical life skill to communicate with entire new swaths of people, and as something that is directly applicable to my studies as a politics major who is interested in focusing on Latin America.
Tell me about a time when you felt joy or happiness speaking Spanish.
I felt joy and and happiness when I went to El Salvador over winter term and the immersion enabled my spoken Spanish and my vocabulary to grow. I especially felt joy making tentative strides in my abilities to communicate and understand people who are from a different place than I am, and have diverging perspectives from my own that I would benefit tremendously from engaging with.
How do you anticipate speaking, writing, reading or listening to Spanish after Oberlin?
I anticipate that I will be speaking Spanish after Oberlin because I intend to become as fluent as possible to the best of my ability and I want to travel to other Spanish speaking countries.
Briefly describe how you ended up on a commune in Ecuador this Winter Term.
I ended up at La Comuna de Rhiannon after a friend of mine from another school told me that she would be going to the commune during January and February. My friend’s school has a similar program to Winter Term but it lasts for 7 weeks, so after much deliberation I decided to go with her.
What do you miss about learning in the commune?
What a question! I miss so much about learning in the commune. If I really think about it though, I think a lot of what I miss can be condensed down into the fact that I was never stressed out living there. I had no large obligations or deadlines looming over my head, just the daily work of gardening or building with adobe or cooking, all of which felt meaningful and fun. In addition, everyone I interacted with at the commune focused on learning through emotional intelligence rather than academic ways of knowing.
Describe how your Spanish speaking and comprehension abilities grew this past January.
I did not get to speak as much Spanish as I would have liked at the commune as the common language among the very international crowd was mostly English. However, there were a few members who only spoke Spanish and I would make an effort to talk with them. In addition, whenever I left the commune I had to interact with people in Spanish. Overall, learning Spanish by speaking with people was so much more exciting that it made me feel motivated to learn more.
Describe something unexpected that happened during your time in Ecuador.
Hmm something unexpected. Well something that wasn’t entirely unexpected but was new for me was an introduction to different spiritual practices. Going into the commune I knew that the main founders engaged in many different spiritual practices, and while I have liked the idea of being spiritual, I had never felt emotionally invested in spirituality. Going into the commune, I wondered if I would have a “spiritual awakening” of sorts and I was surprised by how natural being spiritual in different ways felt to me.
Tell me about what it is like to transition back to living in Ohio. What do you lose and gain?
Wow. Transitioning was, and still has been, really hard. Although I wasn’t exactly living in a culture so totally different from mine, I have never had a bigger culture shock after moving to a different place. One reason for that was because there was so much focus living sustainably and consciously (beyond the capitalist buzzwords those words have become) coming back was really overwhelming to look at the way I live through a different lens. I do feel like I have lost a lot of the intensity and purposefulness I felt at the commune, but I also feel that I can work to take that feeling with me and apply it to other parts of my life. In addition, although the commune felt political in a lot of ways- living sustainably on a permaculture farm, engaging in capitalism in very minimal ways, creating a healing space for people- I did feel fairly apolitical while I was there. I wondered how much I was really “making a difference” in the world and combatting systems of oppression. I think coming back has allowed me to address the kinds of activism I want to do and strike a balance between doing enough and not feeling burnt out.
How will you take what you learned in Ecuador and apply it to work that you do in the U.S.?
I am not exactly sure how I will apply what I have learned at the commune to my life here, but I know that I want to feel more passionate and purposeful about the things I choose to do. Additionally, I want to start finding answers to how I personally want to live, instead of just sitting in my own indecision and not committing to anything.
How do you plan on continuing to learn Spanish?
Immediately upon coming back to Oberlin I realized I wanted to keep speaking Spanish, even if that meant taking a Spanish class. I have not liked learning Spanish in a classroom setting as much as I have loved speaking it and getting better through immersion, but I decided that any way to speak more Spanish would be positive. Luckily I got to skip the grammar classes and go right to classes more based around immersion. I now want to find more spaces where I can just practice speaking in a casual way.