Putting Conversational Spanish into Play

May 18, 2017

Amanda Nagy

Oberlin baseball players Sam Harris, left, and Brendan Mapes
Oberlin baseball players Sam Harris, left, and Brendan Mapes visit Canal Park in Akron for their interview with a player from the Dominican Republic.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Brendan Mapes

As baseball players, Brendan Mapes and Sam Harris are well versed in the language of their sport—first in English, and now in Spanish.

With the knowledge they gained in Assistant Professor Barbara Sawhill’s Advanced Conversation and Communication in Spanish course, the two recently sat down to interview Francisco Mejia, a catcher from the Dominican Republic playing for the Akron Rubber Ducks, the Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. The conversation took place entirely in Spanish.

It’s nerve-wracking enough for professional baseball players to be thrust into an interview with a full press corps, but for those whom English is not their native language, it can be all the more terrifying. The tables were turned on a Tuesday afternoon in May at Akron’s Canal Park.

“We were a little nervous and unsure of ourselves at first, but once we got into it, everyone was enjoying the conversation,” says Mapes, a physics major and Hispanic studies minor from Mount Vernon, Ohio. “Francisco was great. The two Rubber Ducks employees who sat in the interview with us said he really seemed to open up to us. He’s a funny guy!”

Thanks to Sawhill, these conversations between Oberlin students and Spanish-speaking players have been welcomed by the Cleveland Indians organization throughout the last 13 years. For Mapes, the interview was the culmination of a self-designed and self-assessed project that makes up 40 percent of the class grade.

“What I’ve found is that if a teacher is the one who comes up with the topic for a paper, the student is going to be less invested in it,” says Sawhill, who has been teaching the HISP 303 course for 15 years. She will retire from teaching and her position as director of the Cooper International Learning Center in July.

“It’s a third-year language class, which presumes that students have already been exposed to two years of grammar and now want to apply that knowledge. The students propose a personal project that will push them to develop their language further. They establish benchmarks for their progress throughout the semester, they evaluate themselves throughout the semester, and they ultimately grade themselves. I oversee it, and I’lI provide troubleshooting or support if needed. This project is based entirely on the idea that if there’s something you want to do with this language by the end of the semester, if there’s one particular area you’d want to focus your language skills on, what would that be, how we can make that happen?”

Second-year Mapes and third-year Harris both play for the Oberlin baseball team. Although Harris took the course the previous spring semester, he accompanied Mapes because he also had a desire to interview a Spanish-speaking player.

Mapes spent the semester acquiring knowledge of baseball vocabulary and learning the accent particular to the Dominican Republic in preparation for the interview. He asked questions about Mejia’s journey as a player, what it’s like to play in another country, and his opportunities in the Dominican Republic compared with the United States. For his next winter term, he plans to volunteer with a youth baseball camp in the Dominican Republic through the organization Outreach360.

In fall 2016, Harris studied abroad in Cuba at Universidad de la Habana, where he played with school’s baseball team and was enrolled in cinema, Cuban literature, and political economy courses. An economics and Hispanic studies double major from Buffalo Grove, Illinois, Harris hopes to combine those two fields after Oberlin.

The self-designed projects in HISP 303 are a reflection of Oberlin students’ intellectual curiosity. Fourth-year Joseph Velez created a presentation and audio recordings that could be used to help students and their families navigate the federal student financial aid and college application process. A sociology major, Velez will begin his career this summer as a youth development specialist for the Boys and Girls Club of Seattle.

Velez, who is from Chicago, says the project has been a huge confidence boost for his Spanish abilities. “It has also helped me realize that I made the right choice in pursuing the career I wanted after college. It was my first opportunity to give back, and it has made me eager for the next.”

Mina Huerta, a fourth-year neuroscience major from Chicago, focused on how to communicate with native and non-native Spanish speakers about their health. She chose this topic because she is applying to medical school, and she has a job lined up as a medical scribe for a clinic in Chicago.

“I had to learn a lot of medical terminology in Spanish as well as all the body parts and organs in the human body, which is a lot. I also focused on trying to learn most commonly used phrases in Spanish such as “What brings you in today?” and “what hurts?”

Sawhill says she hopes the engagement with the Indians, as well as the WOBC-FM radio program Españoberlin, which was a product of the course, will continue. It’s through this course that she discovered the Spanish language podcast Radio Ambulante, and has been using it as a teaching tool in the class. She had been writing to the producers to let them know how much she appreciated the program, and they’ve since hired her as their Spanish language education coordinator to help other teachers use the podcast with students.

Sawhill says the Hispanic Studies Department has allowed her to be creative with the content of the course while also being academically demanding. “I’ve never taught the class the same way twice. We develop the syllabus as we go along based upon their interests and current events. Both the course and the way I taught it were constantly evolving.

“It has been a privilege to work with Oberlin students. They work hard, they demand a lot of themselves, they are funny and creative. It’s been a great joy to watch them grow as Spanish speakers while also finding ways to use those skills outside of Oberlin. Without a doubt this class and these students are what I will remember most fondly about Oberlin.”

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