The excitement of language learning and a ‘collective learning experience’

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Photo courtesy of Jonathan Fang.

Jonathan Fang (senior), president of Multilingual Oxy, said languages are his passion. Fang’s native language is English but he said he began learning Spanish in high school, which turned into a quest to learn Japanese, Korean, Arabic and German. Fang said he can speak Spanish, Japanese and Korean fluently.

“[Multilingual Oxy] is a space where students meet once a week to collaborate about their deep excitement for learning various languages,” Fang said. “I initially conceptualized this club to create a platform for people who love learning languages.”

When this club first started, it was called the Oxy Polyglots, but Fang said students were worried they would not be able to join the club if they did not know more than four languages. Now, Multilingual Oxy is a space for students who are interested in just starting to learn any language, Fang said.

Jonathan Fang (senior) writes the agenda for a meeting of the Multilingual Oxy club. At Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 15th, 2022. Edward Dong/The Occidental

Fang said his language learning has helped him connect with strangers on a deeper, more personal level. At the beginning of his language journey, Fang said he studied abroad in South Korea and used his knowledge to speak to Uber drivers.

“The driver was asking me if I understood, and then I actually conversed with her so she thought I was from Korea, but I told her that I was not, and that I’m actually from America,” Fang said. “She thought it was really impressive.”

Fang said it is appealing to him to be curious about the unknown and he is excited to talk with people who come from different backgrounds.

Professor Mariška Bolyanatz teaches Spanish and French linguistics at Occidental. She said her passion for learning languages at a young age, specifically Spanish, set her on the path to teach others.

“My dad had done some reconstruction work in Guatemala after the big earthquake there,” Bolyanatz said. “So he would speak a little bit of Spanish at home, but I didn’t start my formal study until 14.”

Bolyanatz said language is all about the interconnectivity of cultures — not only learning about others, but learning about yourself and where you come from — and the importance of it all.

“I would ride the metro to class. I would have a notebook and I would jot down stuff that I overheard,” Bolyanatz said about her study abroad experience in Chile during college. “I eavesdropped shamelessly because to me, that was such an important source of knowledge.”

Bolyanatz said this practice helped her not only understand Chilean Spanish, but also study the intimate conversations that take place in settings other than the classroom. She said that after her experiences abroad, she feels as though completely immersing yourself in the culture of a language is the only way to grasp a second language.

“It’s not only gathering experiential and fact-based knowledge, but the socio-pragmatic layers of communication, but also, what matters to people,” Bolyanatz said.

*Nicole Rios’ (senior) first language is Spanish, and she said she began learning English during her early schooling. Rios said she moved to the United States from a small border town in Mexico when she began high school, and that is when she really learned English, both in class and from her English-speaking friends. Rios is the president of the Comparte Club here at Occidental.

Comparte Club consists of students with a good grasp of Spanish and English who teach English to workers in the Occidental community, holding learning sessions for residential and academic staff, Rios said.

“The club name literally means sharing,” Rios said. “I want students of the Occidental community to understand that language is all about sharing a collective learning experience.”

According to Rios, the Comparte Club is attempting to reestablish its roots in the Occidental and Eagle Rock communities after a difficult couple of years following the pandemic. As of right now, it is not an official club, but Rios said she is hopeful that it will resume next semester.

“Learning languages gives us a moment of introspection, because none of us are experts on our own behavior,” Bolyanatz said. “We see how people do things differently than us and start to interrogate our own backgrounds, upbringings and perceptions.”

*Nicole Rios works as a Translation Editor for The Occidental.