New Dining Commons disrupts Language Tables for spring semester

 Graphic by Carrie Clowers ’18

Graphic by Carrie Clowers ’18

BY GABBY RAYMOND ’20

With the opening of the new Dining Commons the weekly language tables have themselves been tabled until the next semester. 

The language tables have run in the dining halls for over 20 years. In previous semesters, the program was held in the Abbey-Buckland dining hall during dinner hours several nights a week. Since the centralized location is currently struggling to manage the flow of student diners at peak dinner hours, “[dining management] might be hoping to [avoid] such a large congregation, as certain languages like Italian used to take up three large round tables at Abbey-Buck,” said Rachel Murgo ’18, the Italian and Russian departments’ language assistant. 

According to Richard Perna, the new director of Dining Services, in the first eight days of the Dining Common’s opening, dining hall workers have washed 150,000 dishes, and served 40,000 meals. The administration expected such a student overflow when they cancelled the language tables. “[The College] needed to see how the new Blanch goes. I am not sure that [the program] will be re-instituted, at least not in the same format,” said Professor Nieves Romero-Diaz, chair of the Spanish Department.

Language tables have served as a place for students to come together once a week and apply the grammar and sentence construction they’ve learned in conversations with advanced speakers. “You don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to join our table,” stated visiting professor of Spanish Dimaris Barrios-Beltran. “It’s an opportunity to learn, even if students just sit and listen when they are first learning.” 

In a study done by Jacqueline S. Johnson and Elissa J. Newport at the University of Illinois, researchers found that as people age they require more time and exposure to learn a language. Johnson and Newport found that the later in life immigrants to the U.S. were exposed to English, the less proficient they were; after the age of seven, test scores on English proficiency assessments begin to drop below that of native English speakers. For college language learners, this is a significant disadvantage. 

The study also found, “[l]earning that occurs in a formal classroom is unlike the learning that occurs in immersion — instruction does not have the [same] advantages for [language] performance that is held by immersion.” One of the advantages of the language tables is creating an environment where, “students don’t have to worry about being judged, they can learn the language in a more natural way,” said Barrios-Beltran. 

Murgo agreed. “[Eating] food with other people [is a] very social ritual, so it can be a little more relaxing. Having the less formal environment means people can talk about what they want and that could encourage people to participate more than they would in class.” 

Because immersion is so important to becoming fluent in a language, the language tables provided a way for students to gain confidence in their skills by using them outside the classroom setting. 

The language departments want to make sure that their students have as many resources as possible, so they have begun to offer more programs to supplement activities for language learners. The Italian department is offering time periods specifically for conversation. The Chinese floor language assistant is adding new activities for students living on the floor, as well as in the department, including tea ceremonies and conversation. The Spanish department will be showing movies, holding various events on the Spanish floor and holding a conversation session every third Thursday of the month at Gaylord library. “If students want to continue to practice Spanish outside the classroom and learn about the many cultures from Spain, Latin America and the Latino U.S., they will find many opportunities,” said Professor Romero-Diaz.

“When learning a language, more is always better. We always encourage our students to go to Beijing for the immersion experience — and it is required for first- and second-year students to have weekly tutoring sessions to work on their grammar,” said Chinese Lecturer Lei Yan. 

Murgo hopes that the hiatus on the program will end quickly and stresses the importance of connecting global cuisines to language. “I think given their goals of increasing diversity and increasing our community aspect, Language tables can be [something] that students gather around. Especially since we want to create global citizens here, it’s an important component to give people contact with cultures from different parts for the world, and with people they might  never know.” 

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