Practice, practice, practice is key to learning a language, and many Pomona College students do just that, whether at the College’s lunchtime foreign language tables at Oldenborg Center or with prestigious fellowships abroad — or both. Salamata Bah ’20, William Ballard ’20, Justin Lee ’20 and Kyra Madunich ’21 are taking their language learning beyond Oldenborg and studying in South Korea, Indonesia and Tajikistan, thanks to hard work and Critical Language Scholarships awarded by the U.S. State Department.

The Critical Language Scholarship is a government initiative that includes “intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences designed to promote rapid language gains.” According to Professor of German and Russian and Oldenborg Center Director Anne Dwyer, that structure and the resulting gains can begin on campus with the lunchtime foreign language tables. There are six daily tables and more than 20 in total. Dwyer says the lunchtime gatherings of faculty, staff, students and Claremont community members are special for two different reasons:

“First, they give language learners a low-stakes environment to practice and to hear authentic speech. Students also learn all sorts of little cultural details from our language residents that help them hit the ground running when they do get to travel abroad.”

Dwyer says the tables aren’t just a chance to practice conversational skills outside the classroom, they also provide a unique social mixing and community-building opportunity.

“This is probably the only place on campus where students eat and chat with staff, faculty and community members of all ages and all walks of life. It’s a great social experiment that way,” she says.

Ballard, a physics major, said he got some entertainment recommendations at the Persian language table. Professor of Mathematics Shahriar Shahriari gave him some Iranian television show suggestions so Ballard could watch and burnish his skills. Shahriari, who was born and raised in Iran, also encouraged Ballard to go to Tajikistan.

In addition to the tables, Oldenborg offers Persian and Swahili Self-Instructional Language Program (SILP) classes twice a week. The College hires tutors and testers and the beginning-level classes can be taken for credit.

Lee, an international relations major who is in Korea, plans to integrate his language skills into his future career. For him, the Oldenborg tables aren’t just conversational. They’re relational, too.  He’s become friends with the language mentors and teaching assistants and plans to meet up with them while abroad. With the scholarship he is building even more relationships as the award recipients live with host families.

Bah, an international relations and Asian studies double major, is taking her scholarship to Korea as well. She says those lunchtimes were “an easier way to see my growth because I was able to see how I went from not knowing Hangul at all to being able to talk about my daily life as a college student.” The foreign language tables not only fostered growth but, more importantly, they were also a safe place for gaffes.

Ballard says he wants to offer something in return for the reinforcement Oldenborg’s language tables have given him.

“I simply hope to participate in and give back to the Oldenborg community, which has played a crucial role in the evolution of my skills in Persian and other languages, potentially as a language partner at the Persian language table next fall.”