For most people, learning a new language is a daunting task. Even with required courses, the level of language acquisition the typical student achieves after only four semesters of standard classroom instruction (the liberal arts graduation requirement) is nowhere near fluency, and most students let the language skill atrophy until it disappears altogether.
There are many reasons why only a limited level of proficiency is achieved through conventional classroom instruction. For one, students are often intimidated by their professors or peers and embarrassed to make mistakes in a classroom environment.
Even with the fantastic instructors that the Department of Modern Languages has to offer, a one-hour class that meets two or three times a week is simply not enough exposure to master a language.
Homework assignments like those on MyLanguageLabs are designed to extend practice outside of the classroom environment, but the long, tedious exercises are often only a source of frustration.
Sometimes, instructors will take it upon themselves to find the time in their busy schedules to facilitate language practice outside of class, and it makes a real difference in the lives of their students. Spanish professor Irene Kaufmann did just that.
What started as a small meeting over coffee with two or three of her Spanish students in 2006 became a weekly event in the spring of 2009. By the fall of that same year, “El café de los lunes” had its own Facebook group.
Now, it boasts 76 members.
Every Monday in the café of the Student Union, 10 to 15 students gather, push tables together and sit down with Professor Kaufmann to enjoy a cup of coffee, spend time with friends and practice their Spanish. The informal, no-pressure atmosphere makes students at all levels of proficiency comfortable speaking in front of one another, making mistakes and learning together.
Scarlett Andrews, a graduate student at Tulane University and an alumna of the Class of 2011, remembers in a testimony how “El café de los lunes” helped her readjust to Ole Miss after a year abroad.
“At our little weekly cafe,” she wrote, “I found a place. A place where I had no excuse to fall back on English, a place where students of all Spanish levels were passionate about helping each other with the language. I went to the ‘Café de los lunes’ every week I had the chance because not only was it helping me maintain a skill I valued, but the comfortable and casual atmosphere was not forced, and spending time there was more like an afternoon date with friends than a class or a lesson.”
John Rhodes Martin, an M.D. candidate at Tulane and another Ole Miss alum, echoed Scarlett, and credited the weekly group with showing him how learning and using a language can mean so much more outside of classroom instruction:
“It was conversation at ‘El café de los lunes’ that revealed Spanish as a means to communicate thoughts to their most whole completion, with all subtlety and nuance captured in intonation and inflection — the same as I would innately do in my native language,” he wrote.
“Over cups of coffee, we just talked, and in talking, testified to an absolute truth: Communicating through language is never about reproducing with textbook accuracy the ‘perfect’ sentence in every circumstance, but in all circumstances to be, quite simply, understood.”
I myself never had Professor Kaufmann in class, but I knew that I was always welcome at “El café de los lunes.”
After the past three years of sporadic attendance, this semester I finally started going every week. This is the last of my senior year.
After only a few weeks, I can say this now with certainty: I truly regret not taking advantage of this opportunity earlier in my academic career.
It is not often that students have the chance to get serious language practice in this kind of relaxed, informal environment where we are free to be ourselves and practice in the way that language is supposed to be used — spontaneously through conversation. No judgment, no criticism and no pressure.
The hardest part about going to the language conversation tables that take place across campus is sitting down for the first time.
Going to “Él café de los lunes” has reminded me that learning a language isn’t about getting it “right” every time, it is about communicating with and learning from others.
Lexi Thoman is a senior international studies and Spanish double-major from St. Louis, Mo.