Oberlin Blogs

Learning a Language at Oberlin

March 16, 2022

Lucas Ritchie-Shatz ’25

Coming to Oberlin, I knew that I wanted to continue learning a language. For the past 7 years I’ve taken Mandarin Chinese, although over COVID and senior year my skills definitely got pretty rusty. While I’ve had pretty extensive experience with learning a language in middle and high school, college-level Mandarin has been completely different. As a first-year student who’s just started their second semester taking a language course, I thought I would give a general overview of what it’s like at Oberlin. This year I’ve been in Chinese 101 and Chinese 102, so this post might not apply to higher-level classes, but I know from some of my other friends taking other language courses that there’s definitely some similarities.

Taking Chinese at Oberlin started for me before I even got on campus. Considering I’ve taken Chinese in the past, I took the placement test to see what level would be best for me to take. This included both a written/multiple-choice test as well as an oral test. Both of these were very low-stakes, and they’re just meant to try and assess your skills. While I was initially disappointed that I tested into the beginner level, the class definitely ended up being the right one for me. I wasn’t completely convinced when the Chinese professor who did my oral test told me that the class moved quickly, but in reality, even though there’s been some review for me, it’s definitely helped to freshen and improve my Chinese skills.

One thing to know before signing up for a language, though, is that it’s definitely rigorous. My Chinese class is 50 minutes long, 5 days a week, with additional practice times as well as two tests a week. While this is a big commitment, practicing your language as much as you can is the only way to be able to really improve. A previous Chinese teacher I had once described learning a language as trying to keep a knife in an ocean polished and sharp; if you don’t sharpen it every day, the tide will quickly erode it. So while I’m certainly not excited to wake up for my class at 10am every day, it’s helped improve my Chinese immeasurably.

For my Chinese class we use two books, one that is a Chinese textbook with lessons that introduce new vocabulary and grammar, as well as a workbook that helps us work on our skills. One of my favorite things about this class is its consistency. Every week we work on one lesson, learning its words and grammar. For Monday we have to memorize the words, which we will then be tested on on Tuesday. For Wednesday we have listening and reading comprehension homework from the textbook, followed up by grammar homework on Thursday. Finally on Friday we have a test on all the grammar and vocabulary we’ve learned during the week. While a week might not seem like a lot of time to memorize and be able to use up to 40 words, I’ve actually found that the quick pace helps keep the words and grammar fresh in my mind. 

Another commitment for this class is the practice sessions and Chinese tables. On Mondays, we meet with a TA in a group to ask about anything we might not understand and practice the grammar we’re learning a bit more. On Thursdays, we meet on zoom with a teacher from a teaching university in China to work on our tone pronunciation. In addition to these sessions, over the course of the semester we have to attend 10 Chinese tables, which are meetings on Tuesdays and Fridays where students of all different levels of Chinese have lunch together and talk in Chinese to try and get more real-world speaking practice. I really enjoy these sessions, as they are a great time to get to know your classmates as well as Chinese students of a different level than you. 

Overall, I’ve loved taking Chinese at Oberlin so far, and it has inspired me to try and pursue an East Asian Studies minor or perhaps double major along with one of my other big interests, Cinema Studies. I think that learning a language can really help you get to know another culture a lot more, and expose you to other students who you might not interact with if not for your shared interest in language. At the same time, I think that knowing the level of commitment learning a language takes is important, and if that amount of work is too much on top of whatever other classes you’re taking. College is a great opportunity to be able to learn a completely new language, though, as well as have the resources to engage in its culture and history. Whatever choice you make, I hope this overview helped you understand what taking a language course at Oberlin is really like.

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