Every Tuesday and Wednesday, Kenyon students enter the Alumni Dining Room on the lower floor of Peirce Dining Hall to engage in lively chatter in multiple languages.
Language tables are a tradition of the Modern Languages and Literatures department. The tables meet at different times, offering anyone on campus the opportunity to practice speaking a foreign language over lunch or dinner. The conversation can begin at the variety (or the lack thereof) of Peirce’s food offerings for the day. From then on, it’s international waters — anything can happen.
Some language courses require enrolled students to attend the tables a certain number of times or allow them to nullify one absence with three visits, Merlin Thirion-Gueltas, a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) for the French department, noted. However, many attendees are there simply to immerse themselves in languages and cultures.
Although united under that common goal, each person carries their own specific background that brings them to the table. The reason can be as straightforward as wanting some extra conversation practice. “My speaking is not very good, and I’d like to improve. There’s no point in learning a language if I can’t speak it with people,” said Hannah Dunn-Helton ’27. But students also come from a place of intellectual curiosity: “[There’s a student who] wants to study maps and Middle Ages history, specifically in the Middle East,” said Hind Ashraf Hosny, FLTA for the Arabic department. Some have a religious purpose: “[Two students] want to read the Quran in the original language, not the translations,” Hosny added. More often than not, language table attendees are motivated by people — experiences in multilingual neighborhoods, new friends who speak other languages, immigrant family members. These are the people who the attendees are putting extra effort into communicating with.
International students can seek out the comfort of speaking their mother tongue at the tables, but there’s more to it: “Actually if I speak Chinese when I am sitting with my friends, sometimes we will use English words because it’s just easier to express,” said Susan Li ’27. She added, “But at the Chinese table, I think we’re supposed to speak Chinese only, so [even though] I want to speak some English words, I forced myself not to do so.” For international students who have grown accustomed to code-switching in the middle of sentences, language tables can present both familiarity and a pleasant challenge.
The topics being discussed are as diverse as the attendees’ backgrounds. They range from weekend plans, vegetarianism, the new Studio Ghibli film and cat vs. dog preferences to the experience of dreaming in another language. The conversation is occasionally punctuated by segues into short language lessons — a living fish is pez while a dead one is pescado, Visiting Instructor of Spanish Janelle Gondar reminded students at the Spanish table.
The instructors are not at the language tables as grammar correctors alone. They are there, above all, to ensure that the tables are welcoming spaces for students of all origins and language levels. “I think that a beginner could definitely come in and be accommodated,” Dunn-Helton said. Beyond being moderators of the tables’ conversation, the instructors are also active participants. They treat students to stories of their years in their home countries or abroad and take a genuine interest in students’ personal life.
Although the process of translating a word into another language might not always end in exact equivalents, this challenge did not deter the tables’ attendees from trying together. At one point, the Spanish table launched into a quest for the Spanish equivalent of ‘wholesome,’ with each person adding their input before settling on lindo. At the French table, one student was wondering about the translation for ‘marching band,’ which prompted the French FLTA Thirion-Gueltas to search the dictionary and ultimately discover a new word for both him and the student. “You learn new things every day,” he said cheerfully.