1 October 2019
Early in the morning, the Excel Languages Center (ELC), located in Dwire 270, is the perfect place for studying in peace. By noon, there is the pleasant hum of discussion in other languages you might understand bits and pieces of. You will often see groups of students practicing at what are called “conversation tables.”
Whether you are in a world language class and need to prepare for an exam, or you already speak another language and feel rusty, conversation tables can be used to meet a variety of needs. Now open for the semester, they function at three levels and for six languages: beginner, intermediate and advanced for Spanish, French and Japanese; beginner and intermediate for Chinese; and intermediate and advanced for German. ASL and ESL support are also offered.
“The tables consist of one or two tutors facilitating the conversation,” said Sandy Ho, director of the Excel Languages Center and a member of the Student Media Advisory Board. “It can start off with a little bit of socializing, but then the facilitator usually builds in a structure.”
From there, the structure depends on level. “At the beginner level, [tutors] know what kind of vocab words you should be using and what tense you should be staying in” said Ho. This is done to steer the conversation in the right direction. “For the more advanced ones, they track with the syllabus,” she said.
“However, we’re being flexible enough to where if a community (member?) walks in off the street, they can also participate,” said Ho.
Other resources offered in the Excel Languages Center include digital media, magazines, computers, headsets and most importantly, coffee. The ELC also offers the Mango Languages program, similar to Duolingo, focused on conversation but including other features such as subtitled movies.
“English is not my first language, and I learned a lot by watching movies in English and reading along with subtitles,” Ho said.
Students at the 3000 division can participate in weekly conversation tables for class credit in applied conversation in French, German or Spanish. Otherwise, students follow a weekly schedule, which can be found on the website and differs based on language and time.
Caitlyn Delmonico is a senior finance major who tutors in the ELC. Of her experience as a student attending conversation tables in her first year, she said, “It’s always a little bit intimidating, just because you don’t know how fluently the other people speak, but everyone was so friendly and no one made fun of you if you said anything wrong.”
Practicing conversation at the tables gave Delmonico the confidence to speak in French more after taking 4 years of the language in high school. The tables where she now tutors have helped her actively participate in class, and she hopes they can help other students gain confidence in speaking other languages.
Ho also relayed her experience of taking Spanish in high school, yet not having the self-assurance to speak it today. “You might be able to write a sentence and it be correct and well-conjugated, but it’s different than speaking and listening,” she said.
While practicing writing and reading can be useful, having conversations in another language strengthens your knowledge base with another layer of learning, according to Ho. “There are cultural pieces when you’re speaking and listening – pronunciation, accents – other pieces that you don’t necessarily get when you’re just doing worksheets or reading the book. Personally, I think you should have all of those pieces.”