Oberlin Blogs

Language Nerdism

August 10, 2016

Brendan Nuse ’17 and Frances Casey ’17


It would be awesome to be a polyglot. People like a high schooler-turned Harvard student who studies 20+ languages,

or a Sanskrit scholar who can speak 22 languages (and has written over 100 books and has been blind since childhood),

always make me want to better myself. In high school, I spent way more time than I should have watching Multilanguage videos of Disney songs.

Dreaming about speaking a lot of languages is one thing, but actually learning languages is another. I've been thinking a lot about learning languages recently, since I have spent this summer working as a Resident Educator at the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy for Chinese. I have spent a lot of time in college learning languages (mostly Chinese, but I did take one semester of Ancient Greek, spent 19 days trying to use Duolingo to learn Spanish, and am taking Japanese next semester). However, interacting with high school students who are also trying to learn languages has made me more aware of the differences between taking language courses in high school and taking them in college. Here are some differences I have noticed (most of them are specifically related to Chinese, since that is the language I have studied the most both in high school and college):

1. College has a lot more emphasis on reading and writing.

At least at my high school, the Chinese courses were based primarily around speaking and listening. Although we sometimes wrote in characters, we weren't penalized for using pinyin (拼音, the romanization system commonly used today for Chinese-- the spelling is a little different than the previously common Wades-Giles system, which is why you sometimes see Beijing (pinyin spelling minus the tones) spelled as Peking (Wades-Giles)).

I was pretty surprised when I got to Chinese class in college and had to learn the characters for 50-100 words every week. Unsurprisingly, I'm a lot more literate in Chinese now than I was when I got to college. While it can sometimes be overwhelming having that many characters shoved down your throat each week, it's a lot more helpful (at least for me) than not being required to learn any characters at all.

2. College language courses can be very intense.

The fast pace of character learning wasn't the only aspect of college Chinese courses that surprised me. While most college courses meet 2 or 3 times a week, my 2nd year Chinese class met for 5 regular class sessions a week plus 2 extra times outside of class, making for a total of 7 class meetings a week. That coupled with the relatively large homework and studying load made Chinese easily my most time-intensive course. This wasn't a problem for me, since I love spending time studying Chinese, but the transition from my high school Chinese class, where I did not really have to spend any time outside of class studying, gave me whiplash.

If you already have class 5 days a week in high school, having class every day might not seem like a big deal, but when your other classes only meet twice a week, that much class is a pretty big time commitment-- especially with the workload that often comes along with it.

From my observations substitute teaching Chinese, working with high school Chinese teachers, and taking high school Chinese myself, I've found that high school Chinese teachers often feel pressured to give everyone good grades and generally teach in a pretty lenient manner. I'm not sure if this is something that is primarily a Chinese phenomenon (I think that teachers might think that since Chinese is a pretty difficult language for native English speakers to learn, they have to give good grades to make sure that students don't quit), or something that is pretty universal in foreign language courses. However, I personally prefer the more rigorous Chinese courses that I've had in college, since they push me to improve myself. As someone who generally creates goals based on external standards, it's a lot easier for me to motivate myself to improve something about myself (whether it's my Chinese ability or a personal quality) if my grades will improve because of it. Maybe that's not the healthiest way to live, but it's certainly helped me improve my Chinese a lot within a relatively intense learning environment.

3. I've learned a lot more in college language courses than high school ones.

With the big time commitment and intense workload comes a lot of improvement. I took Chinese for many, many years before college, but I think that I saw more improvement in my first semester of Chinese at Oberlin than I had in all those years.

4. College language courses have been a more fulfilling experience.

As I've emphasized throughout this post, Oberlin's Chinese courses have helped me improve my Chinese a lot.

However, I think that Chinese courses have also added a lot to my sense of self. I, like most college seniors, have changed a lot since I graduated from high school. The qualities that I use to define myself now are pretty different from the ones I defined myself by in college. Maybe it's a stretch, but I think that Chinese courses have been pretty fundamental in constructing my current identity. For example, while I always completed my homework in high school, and probably thought of myself as a pretty hardworking person, I don't think that "hardworking" would have been one of the first words I used to describe myself. However, once I got to college and had to face the demands of college-level Chinese classes, I started putting lots of time into studying Chinese. Besides spending most of my weekend each weekend studying Chinese, I made sure to take advantages of outside opportunities like Chinese table and other Chinese department events. Despite initially feeling uncomfortable talking one-on-one with professors, Chinese class got me going to office hours and asking professors for help. Now that pretty much every Chinese professor I've had has gone out of their way to call me "努力" (nuli-- hardworking) or 认真 (renzhen-- serious/conscientious is the closest translation I can come up with), those traits have become ones that I consider major aspects of my personality. A big part of college is figuring out what your "adult personality" is going to be like, and I think that studying Chinese has made major contributions to mine.

I'm sure that some people have very rigorous high school foreign language classes and/or teachers who make a major impact on them. Maybe those people wouldn't have the defining experiences I feel I've had from studying Chinese in college. But I'm sure that others will find studying foreign languages in college a similarly enlightening experience. Regardless, I think that studying a foreign language in college can be an enlightening experience.

5. There are often a lot more opportunities to engage with the language outside of class in college than there are in high school.

While some people do go to foreign countries to study foreign languages in high school, these kinds of programs often aren't accessible for many students-- I know that going to China to learn Chinese was definitely never an option for me in high school. However, in college, I've not only studied in China for 4 months, but also gotten to use Chinese at Chinese department events. I've even gotten to make money for speaking Chinese through translation and teaching jobs I've held during my time at Oberlin. I'm grateful for the opportunities that I've had to study Chinese at Oberlin, but inside and outside of the classroom.

On another note, I'll be starting to study a new language (Japanese-- of course, I won't be giving up Chinese, either) this next semester. But I plan to use some lessons that I've learned from studying Chinese to help myself in this new endeavor. Here are some tips I'm going to keep in mind for myself that might come in handy for anyone else planning to study a foreign language in college:

1. Make sure to review material frequently.

With the amount of new material each week, it can be hard to remember to review past material throughout the course of the semester. However, since material builds on itself, especially when you're first starting to learn a new language, not reviewing material can lead to disastrous results. Reviewing frequently does wonders for language learning (and final exam grades).

2. Try to find opportunities to speak with native speakers.

I like to talk to my friends in Chinese (especially the ones who actually speak Chinese-- the others just tend to get annoyed). However, when most of your conversations in a language take place with people who are also just learning the language, it's easy to end up using phrases that native speakers don't actually use. It's also easy to stay kind of complacent with your language learning when there aren't people better than you pushing you to improve.

Going to China really helped out my Chinese, since it gave me lots of opportunities to talk to native speakers. This summer, I've learned sort of obscure vocabulary (squid, speechless, pillowcase) from some of my friends who are native speakers of Chinese. I've also cut some phrases that "real Chinese people don't use" out of my vocabulary.

It might seem difficult to find native speakers to talk to if you're stuck in the United States. However, sometimes it is easier than it seems-- even having a conversation with a professor can be a big help. There are also lots of international students at Oberlin, some of whom might be willing to help you practice your target language.

3. Make good use of office hours.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, it can sometimes be intimidating to go speak with a professor one-on-one in office hours, especially if you want to speak to that professor in a language that you don't really know. However, going to office hours is a great way to get clarification on concepts you don't understand, clarify requirements on assignments, and even just bond with professors. All of these can be pretty useful when learning a new language, so I hope to take full advantage of office hours, and I hope you will too!

I'm excited to get back to Oberlin and take my next steps towards polyglotism (is that a word? I guess I haven't mastered English yet). Maybe someday I'll make Timothy Doner proud-- I hope you will, too!


Ik ben slecht in het leren van talen.

Yep, languages are not and never have been my strong suit. When I studied abroad, I was always in awe of the ease with which the Dutch spoke English, and shameful of my pitiful attempts to speak Dutch with whoever was patient enough to keep smiling and nodding as I choked out a basic phrase. I wish that the California public school system prioritized language learning as much as the Dutch government. Perhaps, if I had been learning a language other than English regularly since kindergarten, I would be a more competent cosmopolitan ~international chick~. Alas, I am left with a sloppy understanding of the basics of French, Spanish, and Dutch, with little opportunity to practice as I feel my memory slipping away à la Inside Out.

The first memory I have of learning a language is an after-school Spanish class my friend's dad taught at my elementary school. Mostly, I remember throwing different beanie babies around in a circle while chanting their names in Spanish (TIBURÓN... TIBURÓN... TIBURÓN... TORTUGA... TORTUGA...). I grew up in an area where many Spanish-speakers live, and I went to schools where more than half of the students were bilingual, yet my first real exposure to Spanish came in middle school, where I was able to take approximately one month of supplementary Spanish in sixth grade, then was placed in a semester-long language class in seventh grade. I signed up for Spanish, but I was placed in a French class. At first I was incredulous--what use could I possibly have for French in my daily life--but I ended up really enjoying the class, and I continued in eighth grade. I even took P.E. at 7 a.m. in order to fit it into my schedule! Before long, my classmates and I were eager to pick up and move to Paris after graduating middle school and open a boulangerie.

I continued with French in high school, but to be honest, most of my French skills that I have retained came from the first two years I was learning it. I have self-diagnosed this phenomenon as relating to the supposed "age limit" that inhibits second-language acquisition, which seems to coincide with undergoing puberty. Much of the basic vocabulary and conversational skills I picked up in middle school remain surprisingly fresh in my mind, but the more complicated grammar I was learning in high school has long ago been replaced by other subjects competing for my brain space (probably information about abolitionist Quakers...)

My first semester at Oberlin, I immediately signed up for an elementary Spanish class. I think the best way to describe the semester that ensued is HOT MESS. I was nowhere near prepared for the rigorousness of a college-level language class that met daily and required a lot of outside work; namely, going to eat at the Spanish Table in the dining hall (which scared me to death--I was already having to anxiously meet new people all the time as a freshman, why on earth would I voluntarily do that more often?) going to events at La Casa Hispanica, and meeting with a tutor every week. In high school, I didn't really ever study French outside of class and I always had at least a B, and even though I was working my butt off to learn Spanish, and feeling very stressed out every day in class, I seemed to be getting nowhere. Every time I tried to write or speak in Spanish, French words and phrases would worm their way in, which felt really embarrassing at the time. I always felt like the worst student in my class, I wasn't doing well grade-wise, and even though my professor was wonderful, I was feeling a lot of regrets for my rash undertaking. I didn't take Spanish any more after that first semester, and I try to frame that outcome not as a failure, but as a sound mental health decision.

Fast-forward to my junior year. I'm signing up for the classes I'm going to take in Amsterdam. I decide to take Dutch, despite the loud voice in the back of my head shouting Abort! Abort! I was told that everybody spoke English in the Netherlands anyway, but part of me felt it was unfair to expect Dutch people to constantly adjust to my needs while I was a visitor in their country. It seemed like the least I could do was try to learn a little Dutch. Plus, all my classes would be taken pass/fail, thus eliminating the risk of bringing down my GPA. However, I was still worried when I walked into my first Dutch class.

My fears were eased on the first day when everyone in my small class discussed whether or not they were already multilingual, and I discovered that despite the fact that many of my classmates were fluent in multiple languages (Korean, Spanish, Hindi) they were also nervous to learn Dutch! My teacher, a slightly grouchy Dutch man who used to be a hand model, sews all his own clothes, and speaks a bajillion languages, broke up the class by discussing the Dutch language and Dutch culture in equal proportion. Pretty much the entire class consisted of randomly cold-calling on people, which scared me at first, but served as a great equalizer by proving that everyone in the class was pretty bad at Dutch. Shocking, I know! However, it does go to show how our impressions of our individual skill level are colored by our more confident peers in classes where participation is voluntary.

I also discovered that learning a language in the place where it is spoken is way more fun than learning it in the States. Instead of forcing myself to go to the Spanish Table to practice the language, I just went outside and lived my life. Every time I got through an entire interaction using only Dutch, it felt like a huge victory. Now that I've been home for a couple of months, I've been trying to drill the Dutch I learned into my brain so that I won't forget it. Every time I'm buying something at the grocery store, I ask myself, How would I say this in Dutch? What's the Dutch word for blueberries? (It's bosbessen.)

One disappointing thing about learning Dutch is that this new language seems to be forcing out the remnants of French and Spanish that still float around in my brain. (Does describing what's going on in my mind make sense to anyone else when I explain it this way?) This summer, I've tried to speak Spanish a few times, and the words just can't seem to find their way out of my mouth. When I tried to speak French to a multi-lingual camper, I was using Dutch prepositional phrases, and received a very unimpressed look from that six-year-old. It saddens me to imagine my Dutch skills overgrowing in my brain like an invasive species, strangling all my hard work from years past.

De geest is wat vreemds.

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