Oberlin offers a wide variety of courses in almost a dozen languages, as well as instruction in several more through the Experimental College (ExCo) program. This semester, a language pilot program, Virtual Language Tables (VLT), provides once- or twice-weekly instruction and practice in languages rarely taught in colleges in universities.
VLT’s four classes—Czech, Swahili, Swedish, and one that covers Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian—are taught by an Oberlin first-year student, an Oberlin professor, and two Ohio State University PhD students (who teach their classes through videoconferencing). Although the participating students don’t receive credit for their work — and instructors either choose to teach on a volunteer basis or receive just a small honorarium for their time — the motivation behind the extracurricular effort is meaningful to the handful involved.
“Languages help us to take part at a deeper level in a broader world,” says Ian MacMillen, who is teaching the class in Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian. “Ready online access to information from around the globe and shortcuts such as translation programs can lull us into a false sense of immediacy with respect to international communication and understanding, but learning a language can help us to take a more active and more empathetic part in these processes.”
Although VLT has been on a test run this fall, the program’s creator, Barbara Sawhill, hopes that the success of the semester’s work will help make a case for the program to become permanent.