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Parlez-vous Zoom?

Flags on the ceiling of Oldenborg Center

Watch a foreign film without needing subtitles. Read literature as the author wrote it in its original language. Conduct international research or do an internship abroad to expand career horizons. A broader world opens up for Pomona College students who take advantage of language acquisition opportunities based in the Oldenborg Center on campus. And although the pandemic necessitated some changes, language learning has continued to flourish throughout 2020, as the center’s co-directors, Carolina De la Rosa Bustamante and Associate Professor of Spanish Paul Cahill, recently shared.

What resources does Pomona College offer to students who want to become fluent in a second—or third—language?

Bustamante: The Oldenborg Center is the hub for global and international programming at Pomona College and is open to the entire Claremont Colleges Consortium. We promote and support the teaching and learning of languages by providing a living experience of international education through our language immersion residence hall (on hiatus during online instruction) and programs such as language tables, for-credit conversation classes, peer mentoring by native-speaker language partners, the Foreign Language Resource Center, and more.

What languages can students study?

Bustamante: Pomona teaches Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Persian, Russian, Spanish and Swahili. Other colleges in The Claremont Colleges Consortium offer Arabic, Italian, Korean and Portuguese.

What level of fluency can students achieve in their chosen language?

Cahill: The level of fluency depends on the language or languages they are learning, but students who major or minor in a language end up developing a high level of proficiency in their language by reading, analyzing, and translating literary, cultural, and scholarly texts in the target language. In many languages students write their senior thesis entirely in the target language.

How do programs in Oldenborg help this process?

Cahill: Oldenborg creates a low-stakes, friendly and welcoming environment for students to practice and experiment with the languages they are learning. They can feel free to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes while meeting new people they wouldn’t otherwise come into contact with on a normal day.

Bustamante: It’s scary to walk into a room and know you’re going to have to produce language. The language tables address that. When we’re on campus these tables take place during lunch and are open to Claremont Colleges students, staff and faculty, who grab their lunch and sit down at the table—or tables—of their choice and start speaking. In addition to our six main languages which have tables every day, we also host weekly tables for around 20 other languages. We try to make it less intimidating and to make it a supportive environment for students to practice their skills.

How has the move to remote learning made necessary by the pandemic changed things?    

Bustamante: Our team, and the larger Oldenborg community, has done an incredible job adapting to the challenges brought by the pandemic. Language tables now take place virtually in separate Zoom rooms at various times of the day, not just the noon hour. This fall, we offered tables in 17 different languages! Next semester we’re hoping to offer tables in even more languages.

Our language residents and language assistants did an amazing job teaching online conversation classes, making the most of what Zoom has to offer and finding effective ways to build community even when everyone can’t be together in the same room.

Cahill: Conversation courses that would have taken place in the language lounges in Oldenborg are now on Zoom, using some things Zoom allows—breakout rooms, screen sharing, the white board—that might not have worked in person. One of the language assistants is a musician and brought in a friend from Japan and did a cultural event with the students studying Japanese.

So Oldenborg supports understanding cultures as well as languages.

Cahill: It helps students get an extra hook into the language—not just memorizing verb tenses and conjugations. “The better I learn the language, the easier it is to watch this TV show, or go to this festival or museum.”

Bustamante: It adds context. Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Cahill: Some classes have done mock interviews in a target language. It improves speaking skills and is also applicable to an international internship in a certain country—knowing what the expectations are there.

Is there anything that has been developed because of the pandemic that you want to continue into the “normal” future?

Bustamante: We’re looking at offering a couple of events a year that could include alumni who are not physically in Claremont—like a virtual language table. We also want to encourage all students, regardless of whether they are enrolled in language classes, to take part in language tables.

What’s on the horizon for Oldenborg and for the study of languages at Pomona?

Bustamante: Short-term, we’re looking forward to bringing back, virtually, the Oldenborg Luncheon Colloquium, a speaker series on topics of cultural and international interest. Longer-term, we’re excited to broaden the range of cross-disciplinary programming that we offer to further develop opportunities for our students to engage in a global education. We’re also aiming to increase our collaboration with other offices such as the Office of Study Abroad.