Oberlin Blogs

Español y yo

November 29, 2016

Lilah Drafts-Johnson ’18

If there was one thing I learned from French class, it was that I hated learning languages - or so I thought. After 6 years of French instruction in middle and high school, I graduated from AP French barely able to write a full essay and certainly incapable of holding a conversation for much longer than a minute. I don't blame my high school too much for this - I had a different teacher almost every year, and my time as a student instructor with the SITES teaching program has made me appreciate how difficult language teaching can be. When I arrived at Oberlin, I had no intention of trying to learn a new language, least of all majoring in one. But for some reason, I had it in my mind that a language class was required to graduate. Unable to bear the thought of another French class, I decided to try something new and enrolled in HISP 101.

Fast forward two years - I'm in a Spanish-speaking country spending the majority of the day using the language, and Spanish is basically one of my two majors. I can confidently say that the academic highlight of my Oberlin experience thus far has been the fantastic language instruction I've received there. I can't speak to any department besides HISP, but from that first Spanish class at Oberlin the experience has always been immersive and applicable to real-life situations. By the end of my first semester I felt more comfortable in the language than I ever had in French, and I've taken a Spanish language class every semester at Oberlin since. My sophomore year, I was able to travel to Mexico to do the Guadalajara Winter Term trip with Oberlin, which involved a homestay and daily Spanish classes. On the weekends we would travel to different parts of the county of Jalisco and learn more about the country and culture. It was a wonderful experience for my first time out of the country, and I would highly recommend it to people who are beginners/intermediates in Spanish.

It was with these experiences that I nervously arrived in Santiago, Chile, this July to see what I'd really learned. The first weeks, if not months, were certainly trying. Not only had I neglected to practice over the summer, but Chilean Spanish is full of idioms and words that even other Spanish speakers don't understand, and many Chileans take pride in the rapid clip at which they speak. Some low points for Lilah in that first month include conversations like:

Other Person: Cómo fue tu día? ("How was your day?")
Me *doesn't hear Other Person, sees Other Person looking at bicycle and takes a wild guess*: No, no tengo una bicicleta ("No, I don't have a bicycle.")

Other Person: Cómo has estado? ("How have you been?")
Me *hears "Comiste algo?" which means "Have you eaten anything?"*: Almuerzo. ("Lunch.")

I've come a long way from that, thankfully. My Chilean friends compliment my Spanish, and although that's not a real barometer for improvement, I know I've done well enough in my classes here to be exempt from 3 out of my 4 final exams. I've also noticed that because I can roll my "r"'s consistently enough and don't have blonde hair or blue eyes, people are very reluctant to believe that I'm from the US. People do tend to guess Spain, Brazil, or France, funnily enough.

I've thought a lot about language pedagogy and my own growth in Spanish lately, so to conclude I'd like to share a few of the realizations I've found as key to my language progress these past four months:

1. Realizing language isn't the only barrier to communication. There have been times this semester when I've been talking to someone and I'd struggle to follow the conversation, despite technically understanding every word coming out of their mouth. I have to focus and listen a lot more here, and it's made me realize that communication is so much more than vocabulary and grammar. Communication is empathy and understanding, putting context behind what a person is saying. The quote, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply" comes to mind here, and it's made me think critically about the way I speak and listen not only in Spanish, but in English as well.

2. Taking risks can lead to exploring new worlds. Just two years ago, I was taking my final for my Spanish 101 class. Now, I'm in a foreign country taking finals at a Chilean university. I've met new friends, traveled to beautiful places, and grown so much from being forced out of my English bubble. I have had to step out of my comfort zone a lot in this journey, from taking Spanish on a whim my freshman year to working up the courage to invite Chileans for coffee or joining a running group here, but my experience wouldn't be the same had I never taken these risks.

3. Approaching language learning as a fun game or puzzle is more useful than approaching it as an academic task. When I studied French, it was taught with books and audio recordings, and felt like a tedious endeavor. After my experience with language learning at Oberlin, I try to think of my development in Spanish as a slow reveal to a big secret. Everyone who speaks it fluently is in on the secret, and with every new phrase I learn and grammatical tense I master, I'm a little closer to uncovering the secret as well. I really do think that speaking in a different language is fun - I love the way my brain is forced to operate in different ways when I speak Spanish. I often feel lazy or clumsy when I speak in English now - it's too easy and even a little boring compared to the hyper-alertness I feel speaking Spanish.

4. Acknowledging that I am a guest in this language. Although I feel a very strong connection to the Spanish language, the fact of the matter is that I am not and never will be a native or heritage speaker. And that's totally okay - but important to acknowledge, especially with the anti-Latino and anti-immigrant rhetoric that gets thrown around a lot in the United States. I have the ability to flit between Spanish and English as a personal choice in my life back in the US, not because it's the language spoken in my home or a central component to my identity. I'm still figuring out how to be respectful of this while enjoying everything I've learned, but I felt it was important to include in this post.

I'm nervous for the inevitable decline of my Spanish when I go back to the States, but also excited for the ease of living daily life in my native language. Although these past months have been amazing, I can feel myself becoming intellectually fatigued by such an immersive experience - making careless errors in my speaking and at times feeling less willing to focus and learn. I think a (short) break will be good in the long run, and I have a lot of Spanish speaking to look forward to: I'll be living in La Casa Hispánica, taking a Spanish literature class, and continuing with language teaching in the elementary schools. That's the best part about learning a foreign language - it's truly a never-ending journey, and I'm excited to see where it takes me next.

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