Listeners tuned into 91.5 WOBC-FM at 5 p.m. on April 8, 2016, heard Rihanna’s chart-topping single “Work” fade into the rhythmic sounds of Ricky Martin’s “Raza de mil colores.” The transition signaled a change from the radio program A couple years ago, today to the program Españoberlin. It also signaled a change in the language spoken: From conversation between the DJs to the music and interviews played, the live weekly hourlong program is broadcast in Spanish.
Españoberlin is a product of the course Conversation and Communication in Spanish (HISP 303), which is led by Hispanic Studies Instructor and Director of the Cooper International Learning Center (CILC) Barbara Sawhill. The idea for incorporating a radio program into the course hatched two years ago during a conversation between Sawhill and her then teaching assistant, a member of the WOBC board.
“My job in this class is to help my students become more effective communicators, more effective conversationalists, and better listeners,” Sawhill says. “One of the hardest things to do when learning a second language is to listen to your voice in that language. A great way to work on your speaking abilities is to make recordings over time, and so the idea of radio was really intriguing to me.”
To produce Españoberlin each week, one or more students in the class volunteer as DJs and select a theme for their show. Sophomore Sydney Garvis, a geology major with minors in environmental studies and Hispanic studies, was enrolled in HISP 303 in spring 2015. She DJ’d Españoberlin twice, choosing “favorite travels” and “cuentos de hadas” (fairy tales) as show themes. “It was my first time being on the radio, and I was speaking exclusively in Spanish, my second language! It was terrifying but also really fun,” Garvis says. Sawhill and a teaching assistant are with the students in the studio during the show each week to lend technical assistance and to help calm nerves.
The remaining students in the class are tasked with creating three- to five-minute segments based on the theme the DJs selected. “Though only one or two students DJ'd at a time, it was always a class effort,” says Rebecca Cohen, a comparative literature major and Hispanic studies minor who served as a teaching assistant for the class this spring. “Assignments for the class included recording PSAs, news pieces, and station IDs in Spanish and English, all of which were available for the DJs to play during their shows. Many of the anecdotes that members of the class shared were comical and poignant, produced with professional-sounding editing and clear radio voices.”
Sawhill utilizes Radio Ambulante—a podcast often described as This American Life in Spanish—to help her students better understand how to create engaging radio pieces. “By listening to Radio Ambulante, they become aware of the construction of a story: Where the arc is, what sound effects to include, how to use music to build suspense,”Sawhill says. “And so little by little students have been incorporating that into their stories. The level of the production they do for these anecdotes gets better and better every week.”
“Really listening to myself speak in Spanish was challenging,” Garvis says. “No professor I had previously made me record myself. At first it was horrendous, but after a while I heard improvement in the flow of my speaking.”
While students who choose to enroll in HISP 303 do so for a variety of reasons, they all leave it with a newfound sense of confidence in their speaking abilities as well as a better understanding of what it’s like to have conversations in Spanish outside of the classroom. “This course helps students see that mistakes are an invaluable part of learning a language, are completely normal amongst native speakers, and are a gateway to improvement rather than a mark of inferiority,” Cohen says.
“This course also helps students see that real communication is an inherently generous act that requires curiosity and patience in order to be a good listener. In the process of doing interviews, making and listening to podcasts, and being DJs on WOBC, students are becoming better listeners. If you don't learn how to listen first, how will you know what you want to say?”