Section: Features

Language tables offer foreign language practice over dinner

Language tables offer foreign language practice over dinner

Chinese langauge students eating together at Chinese table in Lower Peirce. | ARMIYA SHAIKH

It’s hard to know exactly what’s going to happen at a language table.

“It’s unpredictable,” Assistant Professor of Russian Anna Aydinyan said, “because everyone speaks a different amount of Russian.”

The tables are open events — meaning the attendees range from native speakers to first years in intensive intro classes to members of the local community who have taken up learning the language as a hobby. Aydinyan feels this adds diversity, but it also makes the events hard to plan. Still, the dinners are more about fostering a community than hosting a formal, organized activities. “There aren’t many opportunities to converse in a foreign language outside of a classroom setting, where the vocabulary and speed are pretty constrained to what the class level can understand,” Ellie Randolph ’21 said. That’s what Language Tables offer students– not only the opportunity to practice their language in a controlled way, but also to develop a community.

Although many of the faces around the table change week to week, the language tables are regularly fully packed at dinnertime. The conversations range from Thanksgiving break plans to foreign films. “We talk about everything that our language level allows,” Camille Baxter ’21 said. “Usually the first-year speakers will only know how to say certain things: what classes they are taking, where they are from, their favorite food, so we’ll ask them questions that they know how to answer. Usually we just end up telling stories, like any other conversation.”

The dinners are open to everyone— whether or not they’re comfortable with the language. Faculty at the table are careful to make space for those who may not speak the language easily.. “Sometimes we play games.” Aydinyan said. At a recent table, attendees were tasked with identifying a mystery celebrity— one who had been described entirely in Russian. Still, Aydinyan says, there are challenges. “Often the first years don’t have enough Russian, so we just talk.”

The community is  built from those who keep coming back, and takes steps to encourage new members.

“It can be overwhelming at first to talk to people when you’re studying a language,” Fulbright Fellow Varvara Bondarenko said, “but once you understand the context of what’s being said you become more fluent.” [Russian trans. Dante Kanter].


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