After the Vietnamese language table left the Oldenborg Center for Modern Languages and International Relations last semester due to a dispute with administrators over English usage, former mentors and the Vietnamese Student Association are demanding that Oldenborg support it again without compromises on inclusivity.
Language tables, located in the dining hall of Oldenborg Center 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 classes require language table attendance as part of their curriculum.
Native speakers and language learners not taking formal language classes also often attend language tables. Since there are no Vietnamese language classes at the Claremont Colleges, the Vietnamese language table was the only organized opportunity to learn and practice Vietnamese at the 5Cs.
On Oct. 1, Oldenborg Director Carolina De la Rosa Bustamante approached the Vietnamese table requesting the members in attendance to speak only in Vietnamese, according to a Feb. 23 petition published by Kendra Nguyen PO ’24, a language table mentor and former Vietnamese Student Association public relations officer.
The request was in line with Oldenborg’s traditional “no-English” policy, meant to provide an “immersive space” for students to practice a foreign language without the use of English, according to Oldenborg’s website.
One of the Vietnamese mentors told Bustamante that not all members at the table were fluent and that some English was being spoken to ensure that the table was inclusive and accessible, adding that Oldenborg encourages non-fluent speakers to attend language tables.
Languages that are offered as classes at Pomona College, including Chinese, Japanese, German, Russian, Spanish and French, have “beginner days” tables at Oldenborg every Thursday.
Nguyen explained that English instruction is especially useful in teaching heritage speakers — those who have a more informal understanding of the language because it was learned at home.
“I know Vietnamese from my grandma, and there’s still phrases I still don’t quite know how to communicate in Vietnamese so I might have to 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 Nov. 4, requesting a meeting to discuss the use of English at the table.
VSA executive board member Brendan Ly PO ’22, who has also participated in Oldenborg’s French language table, described the director’s initial warning as “jarring,” as he had never been asked to change behavior at a language table before.
“The fact that we were approached a month later [over] the exact same thing made it feel like we were being monitored in some way. Especially since what [the administrators] told us [was that] other staff members had heard us speaking a lot of English,” Ly said.
The group met with Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Paul Cahill, who serves as the faculty director of Oldenborg, to discuss possible solutions. According to the petition, the students were “abruptly told to find an alternative space to host the Vietnamese Table.”
Nguyen found herself in disbelief at the proposed change.
“I was like ‘Do you hear yourself right now?’ Putting us in a separate room where no one else can hear or see us? Even in any context, [do you hear] how bad that sounds?” Nguyen said.
Ly said he felt that the directors valued the existing Oldenborg policy more than the needs of the Vietnamese students.
“Why do we have to justify ourselves to have this space that we’ve already had for eight years?” he said. “It was very frustrating and infuriating to feel like we had to do [the advocacy] again.”
“Why do we have to justify ourselves to have this space that we’ve already had for eight years?“
At a second meeting Nov. 11, Ly and his fellow mentors presented two options for compromise that they would agree to: either having both no-English and beginner-friendly iterations of the Vietnamese table, or change to a no-English table on the condition that Oldenborg provide a Vietnamese language tutor from outside of the Claremont Colleges.
The petitions alleges Bustamante refused to be flexible with the no-English policy, stating that such flexibility would go against the “spirit of Oldenborg.” While Cahill and Bustamante supported the idea of an external Vietnamese language mentor, they placed the responsibility for 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 Director of Oldenborg Center’s stance, the Vietnamese language mentors no longer felt safe to continue operating within Oldenborg Center,” the mentors said in the petition.
Vietnamese is not currently one of the languages listed as having a table at 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 Vietnamese Table and future inclusion of other language Tables … [and create] a safe and institutionally supported environment for language acquisition.”
“The Oldenborg tables demonstrate the larger issue of the lack of Southeast Asian representation and resources on campus.”
The mentors have called for one of three accommodations to be made for the group: amending the Oldenborg policy to allow code-switching and translating for people that may need to speak English, providing paid language mentors for languages not taught at the Claremont Colleges if there is demand or creating a program and space that allows for instruction of underrepresented languages with occasional use of English.
The petition has gathered 275 signatures since being launched by @5c_VSA on Instagram. The account also posted two infographics regarding the issues, which many 5C students have reposted on social media.
“I think the Oldenborg tables demonstrate the larger issue of the lack of Southeast Asian representation and resources on campus. From the lack of courses about Southeast Asia to the lack of funding, the 5Cs are lacking in what they offer to students,” VSA Secretary Quyen Ballagh PO ’24 told TSL via message.
She said one example was Pomona sending out 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 be funding, acknowledgement, change in rhetoric, academics, or otherwise) should be offered and catered to Southeast Asian students to ensure our identities are seen and heard by the 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 mentors.
One idea asked the Vietnamese table to meet in the Glass Room in Oldenborg on days when the table’s sessions would rely heavily on English, allowing the main dining hall to be used only when students planned to practice what they had learned in Vietnamese-only.
Bustamante and Cahill also offered to work with community members the students might know already who could potentially serve as mentors to the Vietnamese table, who would be provided a free lunch in exchange for their time. Mentors previously said this placed too much of a burden on them to find volunteers, noting that all current mentors were first generation or low-income students already volunteering their time.
The third option Bustamante and Cahill proposed was to use Oldenborg funds to purchase educational materials that could support the learning of Vietnamese. Bustamante added that she would offer this to any of the languages that have tables.
They concluded that they welcomed “the opportunity to continue the conversation with the Vietnamese language table mentors to explore alternate solutions that honor the needs of the Vietnamese speakers and learners, while being mindful of the guidelines of the language table program and the resources currently available.”