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News and Media

Virtual Language Tables Expands Curriculum

Dec. 05, 2012

Liv Combe

Pictured left to right is Ian MacMillen; Sophie Mvurya '16; Ellen Sayles; Barbara Sawhill; Professor Sebastiaan Faber, Director of the Oberlin Center for Languages and Cultures; and Professor Tim Scholl, a member of the Swedish class
Sela Miller '15

Most English speakers know how to pronounce bonjour, what hola means, and how to react when a German wishes you guten tag.

But how do you say “hello” in Swahili? What do you say if a Swede comes up to you and chirps, Hej hej! How do you greet someone in Croatia?

Oberlin students are learning the answers to these questions through the Virtual Language Tables (VLT), a language pilot program begun by Barbara Sawhill, the director of the Cooper International Learning Center (CILC). Students now have the opportunity to take part in once- or twice-weekly instruction and practice in Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian; Czech; Swahili; and Swedish.

Sawhill started VLT, which is funded through the Oberlin Center for Languages and Cultures (OCLC) and the CILC, so that students returning from abroad programs in countries like Kenya or the Czech Republic can continue their language studies. Scores of Oberlin students take part in study abroad — this fall semester alone, more than 100 students chose to pursue their studies in dozens of programs across the globe. And this isn’t a new trend — according to the recently released Open Doors 2012 survey, an annual Institute of International Education report on student mobility, Oberlin ranks third highest out of the top 40 Baccalaureate institutions for total number of study abroad students, up last year from a fourth place ranking.

“Many Oberlin students come here and already have a sense of the larger world,” says Associate Dean of Studies and Director of Programs for International Study Ellen Sayles. “They know that Oberlin strongly supports study away and they want educational experience gained by studying in another location to be part of the Oberlin education.”

And once they bring that experience back to campus, students find that a global education can continue and thrive in the classroom.

While Oberlin offers a wide variety of courses in almost a dozen languages, as well as instruction in several more through the Experimental College (ExCo) program. VLT provides even more opportunities for the language-savvy student. The four classes are taught by an Oberlin first year, an Oberlin professor, and two PhD students in the Ohio State University department of Slavic and East European languages and cultures (who teach their classes through videoconferencing).

Although the participating students don’t receive credit for their work — and instructors either choose to teach on a volunteer basis or receive just a small honorarium for their time — the motivation behind the extracurricular effort is meaningful to the handful involved.

“Speaking Swedish is something that I so badly want to do, and it’s worth it to take two hours a week to work on it,” says senior Emily Asp, a politics major and religion minor who spent last spring studying in Stockholm. Born to Swedish parents, Asp has attended Swedish language camp each summer since she was 7 years old. “It’s really nice to have the chance to talk to somebody in Swedish, since it’s hard to force yourself to speak it. And if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

The instructors feel that the learning of languages — whether it’s Spanish or a rarely taught language like Serbian — is a crucial aspect of a liberal arts education.

“Languages help us to take part at a deeper level in a broader world,” says Ian MacMillen, who is teaching the class in Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian and is a visiting assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow at the Oberlin Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies (OCREECAS). “Ready online access to information from around the globe and shortcuts such as translation programs can lull us into a false sense of immediacy with respect to international communication and understanding, but learning a language can help us to take a more active and more empathetic part in these processes.”

First-year student Sophie Mvurya, the instructor for the Swahili class, says that teaching her native language to other students is a comforting experience — it reminds her of her home in Nairobi, Kenya, and helps her maintain her cultural identity.

“I always feel honored when someone is interested in learning about an aspect of my culture,” says Mvurya. “By teaching Swahili, I am contributing to this process of worldly cultural appreciation.”

Although VLT has been on a test run this fall, Sawhill hopes that the success of the semester’s work will help make a case for the program to become permanent. Until then, the students continue going to their language classes, even in the midst of all the other for-credit work they have to complete.

“The enthusiasm of these students is so extraordinary,” says Sawhill. “They’re doing it purely out of their love of language. But that’s the chutzpah of Oberlin students — they become passionate about something and they don’t let it go.”


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