After the Vietnamese language table left the Oldenborg Center for Modern Languages and International Relations last semester due to a dispute with administrators over the use of English, former mentors and the Vietnamese Student Association demand that Oldenborg support it again without compromising on inclusiveness.
The Language Tables, located in the Oldenborg Center Dining Hall at Pomona College, provide 5C foreign language students with tables where they can converse with other students and student mentors in those languages. Many Pomona language courses require attendance at a language table as part of their curriculum.
Native speakers and language learners who do not attend formal language classes also often attend language tables. Since there are no Vietnamese classes at Claremont Colleges, the Vietnamese language table was the only organized opportunity to learn and practice Vietnamese at 5Cs.
On Oct. 1, Oldenborg manager Carolina De la Rosa Bustamante approached the Vietnamese table to ask members present to speak only in Vietnamese, according to a Feb. 23 statement. petition published by Kendra Nguyen PO ’24, mentor at the Language Table and former public relations officer for the Vietnamese Student Association.
The request was in line with Oldenborg’s traditional “English-free” policy, intended to provide an “immersive space” for students to practice a foreign language without using English, according to Oldenborg’s policy. website.
One of the Vietnamese mentors told Bustamante that not all members at the table were fluent and some English was spoken to ensure the table was inclusive and accessible, adding that Oldenborg encourages speakers non-bilingual to attend language tables.
Languages offered in courses at Pomona College, including Chinese, Japanese, Germans, Russians, Spaniards and French, have “beginners” tables in Oldenborg every Thursday.
Nguyen explained that teaching English is particularly useful for teaching heritage speakers – those who have a more informal understanding of the language because it was learned at home.
“I know Vietnamese from my grandmother, and there are still some sentences that I still don’t know how to communicate in Vietnamese, so maybe I should switch to English a bit,” she said. .
After a month of continuing to operate the table as usual, the language mentors were contacted by Bustamante on November 4, requesting a meeting to discuss the use of English at the table.
VSA board member Brendan Ly PO ’22, who also sat on Oldenborg’s French language table, called the manager’s initial warning ‘shocking’ as he had never been asked to change behavior to a language table before.
“The fact that we were approached a month later [over] exactly the same made it feel like we were being watched somehow. Especially since what [the administrators] tell us [was that] other staff had heard us speaking a lot of English,” Ly said.
The group met with associate professor of Romance languages and literatures Paul Cahill, who is head of the faculty at Oldenborg, to discuss possible solutions. According to the petition, the students were “abruptly asked to find another space to accommodate the Vietnamese table.”
Nguyen found herself in disbelief at the proposed change.
“I was like ‘Are you getting along right now?’ Put us in a separate room where no one else can hear or see us? Even in any setting, [do you hear] how bad does that sound? Nguyen said.
Ly said he felt the principals gave more importance to the existing policy of Oldenborg than to the needs of Vietnamese students.
“Why do we have to justify ourselves to have this space that we have already had for eight years? he said. “It was very frustrating and infuriating to feel like you had to do [the advocacy] again.”
“Why do we have to justify ourselves to have this space that we have already had for eight years?“
In a second meeting on November 11, Ly and his fellow mentors presented two compromise options they would agree on: either have both non-English and beginner-friendly versions of the Vietnamese table, or switch to a table with no English on the table. condition that Oldenborg provide a Vietnamese language tutor outside of Claremont colleges.
The petitions allege that Bustamante refused to be flexible with the anti-English policy, stating that such flexibility would go against “the spirit of Oldenborg”. Although Cahill and Bustamante supported the idea of an external Vietnamese language mentor, they placed the responsibility of finding a tutor on the students.
Following this meeting, the language mentors decided that they would no longer hold the Vietnamese language table in Oldenborg.
“Given the position of the director of the center in Oldenborg, the Vietnamese-speaking mentors no longer felt safe to continue operating within the center in Oldenborg,” the mentors said in the petition.
Vietnamese is not currently among the languages listed as having a table in Oldenborg, according to its website.
In the petition, which was published four months later, the mentors demanded that Oldenborg “prioritize the inclusion of underrepresented languages such as the Vietnamese table and the future inclusion of other language tables. .. [and create] a safe and institutionally supported environment for language acquisition.
“The Oldenborg tables demonstrate the larger problem of the lack of Southeast Asian representation and resources on campus.”
The mentors requested that one of three accommodations be made for the group: changing Oldenborg policy to allow code-switching and translation for people who might need to speak English, providing paid language mentors for languages not taught at Claremont Colleges if there is a demand or the creation of a program and a space allowing the teaching of underrepresented languages with occasional use of English.
The petition has garnered 275 signatures since it was launched by @5c_VSA on Instagram. The account also posted two infographics regarding the issues, which many 5C students reposted on social media.
“I think the Oldenborg tables demonstrate the larger problem of the lack of Southeast Asian representation and resources on campus. From the lack of Southeast Asian courses to the lack of funding, the 5Cs are lacking in what they offer students,” VSA Secretary Quyen Ballagh PO ’24 told TSL via message.
She said one example was Pomona sending a “Happy Chinese New Year” message, despite the fact that Lunar New Year is celebrated by many other national and ethnic groups.
“I think overall more resources (whether it’s funding, recognition, changing rhetoric, academics, or whatever) should be offered and provided to Southeast Asian students. to ensure that our identities are seen and heard by schools,” she said.
In an email to TSL, Bustamante and Cahill said they offered three possible options in response to the petition.
Two of the ideas were similar to those that had been proposed earlier and rejected by the mentors.
One idea was for the Vietnamese table to meet in the Glass Room at Oldenborg on days when table sessions would be heavily dependent on English, allowing the main dining room to be used only when students planned to practice what they had learned in Vietnamese only.
Bustamante and Cahill also offered to work with members of the community that the students might already know and who could potentially serve as mentors at the Vietnamese table, who would receive a free lunch in exchange for their time. Mentors previously said it was too much work for them to find volunteers, noting that all current mentors are first-generation or low-income college students who are already volunteering.
The third option proposed by Bustamante and Cahill was to use Oldenborg funds to purchase teaching materials that could support learning Vietnamese. Bustamante added that she would offer this to all languages that have tables.
They concluded that they welcomed the “opportunity to continue the conversation with the Vietnamese language table mentors to explore alternative solutions that meet the needs of Vietnamese speakers and learners, while keeping in mind the language table program guidelines and currently available resources.”