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
Laura is a second year majoring in East Asian Studies and Cinema Studies at Oberlin College. Laura is currently taking Spanish and Japanese classes at Oberlin College. She is fluent in Mandarin and English, is currently learning Spanish and Japanese and knows a little French. Laura is amazing.
Where were you when you first started learning English & Spanish & Japanese?
I started learning English when I was five during the summer vacation right before I went to primary school. I was in my home town. My mother and I passed by a building and it was like a really colorful building, I thought it was an amusement park or something but it was an English after school study institute.
The institute was a Taiwanese-funded institute and the director imported a United State’s textbook and the class was really fun and conducted entirely in English. We were only allowed to speak in english. I was the youngest in the class. Most of the students in the class were in fourth grade or fifth grade, I was not even a first grader. But they cared about me a lot and they took care of me and I felt really comfortable in that setting. And ya that is how I got started with English.
I couldn’t speak Chinese that well because I had problems with speaking. My parents took me to the hospital because I stuttered and couldn’t finish a sentence in Chinese. But when I spoke English it was a new language and I could speak with people who were older than me so I started to get confident in English.
Then I stopped taking the after-school classes when I was in third grade because the school offered mandatory English classes. And then I started to taking the school class which wasn’t funny or interesting. The professor’s pronunciation was not that great and it was less fun.
And then I started to learn Japanese because I was into anime in that time. I chose the international high school [in my province] and then wanted to go to Japan and that was my plan.
I learned French for two months the summer vacation before I went to the private school. I like the way it sounds. I like French cinema, that is what drove me to take the class. I had the class with a lot of college students when I was 15-ish. It was not a great experience for me, but it was helpful for learning Spanish later because I learned about verb conjugation and gendered objects.
There was only one private institution in my provence, 40 minutes by car from my house, for high school. I performed poorly cause the whole curriculum was taught in English I was the only kid who wasn’t use to that type of schooling. I was the only one who had been educated in a public school. And the school offered Spanish so I started to learn Spanish in my first year in high school.
How do the languages you know influence the way you watch films in various languages?
I never really watch movies with the dubbed version. It changes emotions it has lost something when it is dubbed. I watch them with subtitles definitely. I watched anime, the anime was in Mandarin and then I watched a Taiwanese version and then it gave me a feeling that was different and then I watched the Japanese version. It was the real version, I got a different feel from it than the dubbed ones.
Image Courtesy of Laura Li.
Jad Salem is a third year majoring in Mathematics at Oberlin College.
How does knowing three languages influence the way you think?
Knowing sayings/adages from different languages definitely changes the way I think. I feel like sayings differ depending on where they come from, so it’s like having 3 perspectives sometimes.
How has language in your home influenced the way your friends interacted with you in middle and high school?
In my home, we spoke a mixture of English and Arabic. In my school, I definitely bonded with other people who spoke Arabic, but I’m not sure if it was a language thing or a culture thing…(well I guess language is a culture thing?) Some of my friends at school took Arabic classes with me on Sundays, so that gave us a lot to talk about! Other than that, as far as I know, language in my home didn’t really affect how people interacted with me.
What are your hopes & dreams about learning languages in your future? Are you studying abroad?
I mostly want to focus on maintaining/improving my French and Arabic! I think they’re both beautiful languages, and I definitely gain a lot from having experience with both of them. My Winter Term project this year is learning Magyar (Hungarian), so I hope to get familiar with the basics then!
What aspect of teaching others how to speak and write in Arabic is most exciting to you?
What excites me most about teaching Arabic is interacting with other people who are interested in Arabic (or languages in general.) Teaching also allows/forces me to compare the structure of Arabic with the structure of English, which is always interesting. I often don’t think about Arabic in terms of English, so making these connections can be illuminating.
What concepts or idiomatic expressions are there in Arabic that do not exist in English or French?
So many! There are lots of little things you say in Arabic that you don’t in English. For example, when someone is eating, you tell them “sahtain,” which literally means “two healths.” The idea is you’re wishing them good health. Another is “ala rossi/ala ayni”, which means “on my head/on my eye.” You use this phrase to describe a task that you are happy to do for someone because you care about them (e.g., “can you give me a ride to school?” “ala rossi.”) Also I’m not 100% sure what an idiom is, but I think those count maybe? Anyway, the list goes on…
Can you teach me Arabic? Please?
Image Courtesy of Claire Appelmans
Xun Zheng is a second year majoring in East Asian Studies who shares about his experience with Japanese!
I didn’t know my Japanese was not yet usable until the first night I arrived Tokyo when I was trying to talk with my ryocho san (dorm manager), who didn’t speak English, and realized I could speak nothing more than “yes” and “no”—to make it even worse—in an unnecessarily formal manner.
Even though I didn’t take Japanese in high school, I thought I’d been living with it for some years through a huge number of TV shows, social networks and a little bit of self-teaching. But the delusions of being able to speak Japanese were all gone at that night. On the way to the dorm, I could mostly understand what the manager was talking about, but I wasn’t able to let him know about that. Words that I used to be familiar with didn’t come up to my lips as an organized, meaningful sentence: I didn’t know how to phrase my thoughts or choose the proper verb conjugations within few seconds to keep the conversation flow, and I didn’t even know what would be an acceptable translation of my name. I was indeed an alien of this language.
Referring to my performance at the first night, the following few days were not surprisingly awkward. Being such a nice person, the dorm manager would call me in my room during the mealtime if I didn’t show up. Those phone calls turned to become a mess of multiple languages. Knowing that I was from China, he sometimes tried to speak the word “dinner” in Chinese. I would repeat the word in Japanese to make sure I got what he was saying, and then we both gave a last try, counting on communication ability of English, to clarify the complicated fact we’d been working around, “Dinner, no. Breakfast, yes.”
In the following month, though quite slowly, I started to pick up some basic but useful words (I found it so useful to know the word for “trash”). Relearning some kanji words and English-based loanwords was also proved incredibly helpful, because their pronunciations and meanings could subtly and unpredictably change in a Japanese context. Progress was being made bit by bit. I got to understand whether the salesman was asking me if I wanted a receipt or a bag, and I also stopped inappropriately saying “thank you” to the manager after each meal, but would use “thank you for the treating me so well” instead.
I come up with a theory that learning a foreign language is more or less living through someone else’s childhood in another culture. As a new-born, according to my theory, one has to depressingly grab every single piece of information passing by in order to read the meanings out of the puzzle of 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