Friday, May 8, 2009

How to Say "Gracias" in a Spanish Community Service Learning Course

by Ann Abbott

In the teaching materials for the "Spanish in the Community" course, I ask students at the end of the semester to write thank-you notes to their community partner or community members.

When I originally wrote the materials, I did it because I thought it was important professionaly and personally to show your gratitude to the people who have taught you all semester long. Our community partners put a lot of time and effort into supervising our students' work and teaching them about the community; it's only right to acknowledge that.

What I found out was that this is another case in which professional skills, cultural knowledge and language proficiency are more intertwined than we realize.

Professional skills. We all know that following up from a job interview with a hand-written note is professional must. But when is it appropriate in other occassions? Required? Frowned upon? I think that the vast majority of our students say please and thank you every single time they are in the community; they are lovely, polite people. But putting something down in writing on nice stationery is a professional gesture that people can overlook. I also think that students may associate note-writing with "jobs" and their work in the community as "just volunteering." I think it's clear in this blog and in the curricular writing that I do that I want students to see their work in the community in pre-professional terms.

One of my TAs this semester, Lily Martinez, took the thank-you note to a new level! Her students made the thank-you notes in the photo above. Not only do they convey an important message with their words, they also show that they have taken the time to present their thoughts in a form that unique and hand-crafted. Thank you, Lily, for your creativity! :)

Cultural knowledge. I hate broad cultural generalizations, my experience, formal written notes are more important in Latin cultures that I am familiar with (Italian and Hispanic) than in the US. I know that we can all find counter-examples to that statement. But in general, saying thank you with a written note, even a gift, seems to be de rigueur in professional (and some personal) contexts in Latino cultures.

I also find that my Italian and Hispanic acquaintances usual include in their "thank-you" a reference to my family. I remember many years ago when someone from a Hispanic or Italian culture would tell me, "And give my greetings to your mother," I would politely say yes, but never actually pass on their greetings. I thought it was a mere formality. I quickly realized that they would indeed follow-up and fully expected that I HAD indeed conveyed their greetings. That was a cultural lesson I learned the hard way and that our students can benefit from as well.

Language proficiency. I was surprised when I read the students' thank-you notes the first semester I did this and saw all the mistakes and limitations in their Spanish. The majority simply did not know the language that is used in a thank-you note, probably because they had never actually had to write one to a real person before. Here are a few of the issues I have noticed over the years.
  1. Gracias. That is the only way many of our students know how to say thank you. In my revised materials for this lesson, I try to introduce students to a wider array of possible expressions: Quisiera agradecerle/te la oportunidad de poder..., Le/Te agradezco su amabilidad..., Le/Te doy las gracias por haber me ayudado..., Le/Te quiero dar mis gracias por la paciencia con que recibió todas mis preguntas...
  2. Tú/Usted. I saw many notes that went back and forth between addressing the person as or Usted.
  3. Por. Many, many students use para instead of por in these constructions. They need to be reminded (taught for the first time?) that you always say "Gracias por..."
  4. I had a good time./I enjoyed myself. You probably know where I'm going with this... Many students translate these phrases literally, and wrongly. To say something like, "I had a good time working with the kids in your classroom," you would say something like "Me gustó mucho trabajar con los niños." Often I see mistakes like, "Me disfruté mucho..." (correct word, but shouldn't be least not in this context!) or "Tuve un buen tiempo..."
  5. Wrapping it up. Many of the students form strong attachments to the people--especially children--that they work with all semester long. They close their notes by giving them words of encouragement and wishing them luck in the future. One expression that would be useful in this context but that I rarely see: "Que te/le vaya bien (con)..." And a student's (lack of) control of the subjunctive mode usual becomes clear in the closing lines: "Espero que..." I would say that the majority of students don't follow up that phrase with the subjunctive in their thank-you notes.

Despite any mistakes in grammar or vocabulary, I mail these notes to our community partners to show them how much their work is truly appreciated by the students. And how much I appreciate their patience with and encouragement with our partnerships.

So, this is my big THANK YOU to the SPAN 232/332 students, TAs and our community partners in Spring 2009: ¡Gracias por todo! :)


  1. I have borrowed this "Thank you" note lesson from you Ann and it is such a successful class period. Students begin with kind of puzzled looks on their faces as I hand out nice "Thank you" cards. But within a few minutes, they're thinking of more people we need to thank and more expressions in Spanish that they never even realized they didn't have. I love to see the confidence boost and satisfaction they get from knowing how to do this well.

    I'm also a stickler for collecting the notes and mailing them out myself. This is why I get curious looks at the end of class, as there are always a few students who want to work on them some more on their own or mail them on their own. I encourage them to do something else on their own, but I mail the Thank You notes I purchased so I know that they get out. I know how it is at the end of the semester--we all have good intentions, but there's just too much going on that makes details like this fall through the cracks if I don't streamline it myself.

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