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 McManamy is a second year Environmental Studies Major with a Food & Agriculture pathway. Laura spent Winter Term 2017 in El Salvador with Oberlin Solidarity with El Salvador.
The trip we went on is a solidarity trip that’s been happening every year for about 10 years where we go to a town called Santa Marta which is basically on the border of El Salvador and Honduras. It’s a town that has a lot of really intense history to it from the civil war that occurred there in the 1980’s. Something really incredible about it though is how politically organized the people there became throughout all of the attacks. So now they have a lot of really cool innovations because of it, including a community radio, greenhouse, health clinic, and education system, and the people there are just really amazing people.
While we were there we stayed with host families and served at a site pretty much every day, for example I worked in the greenhouse helping out. It had been about 2 years since I’d spoken Spanish so that made it difficult for me to connect very deeply with people on my end, but I was able to listen and understand a lot. In our formal sessions of listening to people’s testimonials from the civil wars it was especially important to have the language skills to hear these deeply meaningful stories about these events which affected people so personally. Hearing that from them directly, in their own language, is such a deeper experience than reading about it in a history book or another secondary source.
A huge part of being there was just knowing the context and history of everything that affected them in the civil wars. People who had orchestrated these attacks against them were English speakers, so English is a very threatening language to them, filled with this background of violence. Being able to speak Spanish with them made such a difference in the level of trust and comfort of interactions between all of us. Even if understanding and ease of discussion was maybe more difficult than if we all had the same native language, the power of the historical context of language meant so much more than anything else.
Beatrice Chum is a current senior from Hong Kong, with a double major in Politics and East Asian Studies (Korean Studies concentration) and a minor in Latin. Beatrice spent two summers and the first semester of her senior year at Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea. Here, Beatrice shares her adventure in South Korea and her experience as a Korean Studies student at Oberlin. If you are interested in Korean Studies at Oberlin or in studying abroad in Korea, reading about her experience might be helpful for you!
How did your interest in Korean language develop? I know many people have taken Korean ExCo here (including me), but not a lot of people keep going after the ExCo. What is your motivation to continue learning Korean and later study abroad in Korea?
During my first semester at Oberlin I had a great mentor who was Korean-American. She introduced me to the popular culture but also to continued traditions. When I traveled to South Korea for the first time that winter, I became captivated by what I heard and read and saw that felt so close to home yet so incredibly different at the same time. That feeling led to me to learn the language, study the history, and gain a further understanding of the culture.
How did you find your program? Why did you come back to the same program after a year?
The An Family Summer Fellowship graciously offered me an opportunity to study at the Korean Immersion program at Sogang University during the summer of 2015 and I had a very positive learning experience. When I returned to Oberlin, I became sure that I wanted to pursue an East Asian Studies major with a concentration in Korean Studies and that I would return to Sogang to further my language studies. I chose the Korean for General Purposes program at Sogang upon my return because their emphasis on speaking appealed most to me.
How were the programs like academic-wise? What activities do you do in order to learn Korean either in class or outside class?
The Korean Immersion program is a five-week program which includes four hours of language class in the morning and two hours of culture class in the afternoon. The Korean for General Purposes program is a ten-week program which includes four hours of language class in the morning. The language class includes an hour of writing, two hours of speaking, and an hour of reading and listening. During the language class, we also become exposed to Korean culture through the texts and materials. The culture class consisted of different activities every day ranging from traditional cuisine to taekwondo to exploring palaces and museums. Although the KGP program did not include culture class, I traveled around on my own during the afternoons to various exhibitions and festivals.
Comparing to other languages you have learned, how difficult do you think learning Korean is?
I admire how straightforward the Korean alphabet is. I struggled through twelve years of Mandarin since elementary school and the number of characters I can remember how to write without reference is embarrassingly few. And I’ve probably forgotten most of the Japanese katakana I learned last year. But I suppose the link from English to French and Latin is similar to that of Chinese and Japanese to Korean. Although I can identify similarities in vocabulary and grammar, the Korean language certainly has unique characteristics that take time to learn and understand.
What was the most fun part of your study abroad? What was the hardest part?
My study away was kind of surprising. The summer program I attended was made up of mostly college students, but I was the only college student in my classes during the two semesters I returned to Sogang. The first month was admittedly awkward. Even though I recognized how privileged I was to be embarking on this new adventure, I was scared it wouldn’t be what I hoped. But I think that’s exactly what made the experience fun. I learned to force myself to venture outside of Seoul alone, to share more conversations in Korean, to find a close community at a neighboring university, and to really learn as much as I could in six months.
Obies might be more familiar with other study abroad program in China and Japan than that in Korea. What in your opinion might studying abroad in Korea be different from that in China or Japan? (campus life, social life, boarding etc.)
The university I attended had little experience hosting students studying abroad, so I had to figure out room and board on my own. Other bigger universities in Seoul have greater resources and a stronger community for students studying away. I suppose the affiliated programs in China and Japan would be similarly prepared.
This is your last semester in Oberlin. Are you going to continue with Korean language in the future? Do you plan to go back to Korea anytime soon?
I definitely hope to continue with my journey with the Korean language but will probably proceed with self-study for the time being. Someday I would love to travel to all the different regions of South Korea to appreciate the distinctive histories and characteristics of each place.
Anything else you want to share?
Korean Studies seems to be an increasingly popular concentration among East Asian Studies majors and that’s wonderful! I hope Oberlin continues to support students in learning about Korean culture and history.
Thank you very much! Enjoy your last semester in Oberlin!
Thank you! And thank you for your thoughtful questions.
How did you learn Japanese?
I’m half Japanese and my mom spoke to me in the language. I also lived in Tokyo for half of my life. There was a time where I was definitely better at Japanese than English but not anymore hahaha.
What do you with Japanese here at Oberlin?
I take classes. I watch Terrace House, my favorite reality show here
You were in Japan for Winter Term right? What were you up to?
I was in Japan in Tokyo talking to my grandparents about their experience in WWII. I wanted to be in Tokyo and my grandparents never talked about. So I decided to ask them.
What did you learn?
My grandpa owned a factory that built plane parts for the army. He also told me about how Tokyo was rebuilt after the firebombs. Tokyo was all ash. Every building was kind of burnt down. Everyone was really supportive of each other. No one tried to get ahead of each other. He changed his factory to a bakery that gave free food to all these companies. Companies that no one could do well if everyone wasn’t being supported. Also, across the street Sony was being developed, taking my grandpa’s free bread.
What not WWII stuff did you learn?
I got to see Tokyo being built for the Olympics. I also learned about the mayor of Tokyo. She’s doing a lot to stop corruption in the city. There have been some things with companies using government money and she’s been changing that.
Dani is a musical studies major at Oberlin College.
What other languages do you know and how did you learn each of them?
I know Portuguese because I grew up speaking it with my parents. My father was an expat who migrated from São Paolo. He went to college in Panama city and then went to UIC where he met my mom, and from there they both went back to Brazil.
Which language do you feel like you can communicate best in or are more yourself? What language feels most like home or comfortable to you?
I feel like I can communicate better in English but it doesn’t feel like home necessarily. What feels most like home is when I’m speaking both English and Portuguese, using words from both languages wherever they work best. This combination is usually what I speak with my mom and dad which is why it feels most like home.
What is your favorite word or phrase in another language besides English that is untranslatable to English? What does it mean?
I think the obvious one in Portuguese would be saudades, which translates to missing but its meaning is more like nostalgia or longing. Another phrase in Portuguese is from a song I like: O samba e pai do prazer o samba e filho da dor. The exact translation of this is Samba is the father of pleasure, samba is the son of pain, but the flow of it in English isn’t the same as in Portuguese.
When you speak in other languages, do you think in the language you’re speaking or translate the words from another language in your head before speaking?
I think in Portuguese when I’m speaking it, but it’s sometimes more limited because most of my thoughts are in English. Its interesting because the thoughts that I need to convey in Portuguese today as an adult are totally different from when I was in middle school in Natal, Brazil. When I was in middle school, all I needed to know how to say was where’s the bathroom, let’s go play ball, stuff like that haha.
What is your favorite dish tied to this language?
I like feijoada because of its history and because it’s one of the things that my mom would always cook growing up. Also I love farofa so much which is manioc flour toasted in fat that becomes really crispy and tasty.