Language tables on campus give students a casual, low-stress opportunity to learn something not covered in the textbooks–the art of conversation.
Led by the department’s Language Fellows, the weekly gatherings are a space for students to eat dinner and chat with their peers in the foreign language they are studying.
The Hispanic Studies, Chinese, and Japanese Departments hold their tables in the reserve room at the All Campus Dining Center while other language departments, such as the German and Russian Studies Departments, choose to host slightly more elaborate get-togethers in their Language Lounges in Chicago Hall.
While attendance varies from department to department, most Language Fellows report they saw 15 to 20 students at each meeting. These gatherings are entirely optional for most students.
Language Fellow Helios Dominguez, who leads the Hispanics Studies Department’s table Thursday nights, strives to keep the conversation rolling and the atmosphere friendly.
“I try to improvise. It should be more informal. The Spanish table is to give them that impression that they are not going to a class. They are doing an activity that is completely relaxed. There’s no teachers there to judge you,” said Dominguez.
Russian Studies Department intern Ian Buksunski also believes the casual atmosphere of the gatherings is important because it gives students permission to make mistakes—a process important to any type of learning.
Explained Buksunski, “You have to speak, even if you’re saying it wrong, no matter how bad it is at first. Just starting to speak at first helps so much. Otherwise, [your fluency] just doesn’t develop at all.”
Dominguez sees his role as a Language Fellow as one of an educator, but nevertheless distinct from professors who teach students the grammar and rules of a language. “We are here at Vassar to support and develop the conversational skills of the students,” said Dominguez.
To get his students to start speaking German Language Fellow Malte Steitz tells them to “Talk about whatever you want to talk about.”
The German Department’s language table is called Kaffee Klatsch and meets Wednesdays evenings coffee German desert, which Streitz bakes every week.
The conversation at Kaffee Klatsch is always free and open-ended, and this year students have discussed their schoolwork, movies they had seen, and patriarchy.
Similar to the German Department, the Russian Department hosts Russian Teas. Each week Russian Tea, unlike Kaffee Klatsch, will center upon a specific theme chosen by the department and by Russian Studies Fellow Olesya Elfimova. The themes draw from all sections of Russian culture and have this school year included Russian celebrations, the different ethnic groups of Russia and an introduction to Russian slang.
They begin each week by making tea, boiling water in an electric Samovar, an elaborate metal kettle that is culturally significant in Russia.
Said Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian Studies Margarita Safariants, “Russians have a long tradition of gathering around a Samovar or some sort of tea receptacle and exchanging ideas, and this has been going on for centuries.”
Mellonn Post Doctoral Fellow of Russian Studies Charles Ardnt III described the goal of the Russian Tea topics as rounding out a student’s knowledge of a foreign language and culture, especially in non-academic areas.
When the theme one week was Russian card games, students learned the rules to the games and also how to say the names of the suits in Russian. A student will never be asked to recall this information in a class, but it could potentially prove useful one day should they, choose to spend a semester abroad in St. Petersburg.
Said Ardnt, “It creates real-life situations that you can utilize as language teaching moments.”
For Dominguez, the work he does at his language table ties in with his own journey of learning a second-language and coming from his home country of Spain.
Said Dominguez, “In my personal experience learning English, it was so important for me to come here and feel comfortable talking with people even when I made a lot of mistakes.”