by Megan Creighton
My name is Megan Creighton and I am senior in my last semester at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. I have been taking Spanish classes since second grade and have always felt that learning Spanish was fun and exciting. However, I didn’t come to really appreciate the importance of learning a foreign language until my junior year of high school. That year I had a Spanish teacher that changed my perspective on language learning as well as the value of of a good work ethic and perseverance. Unlike other Spanish classes where teachers would consistently revert to English for the ease of clarification, this teacher instituted a truly Spanish-only classroom. Because of her strict demeanor and classroom policies, I was terribly intimidated. Moreover, I was overwhelmingly confused during the first few weeks because I could not understand her quick-paced Cuban dialect. When kids like me consequently gave up in class, she simply said: “Mi padre llegó al país solo saber a Español. ¿Que imaginan que hizo él?” Using the struggle her Cuban father experienced as an immigrant in the 1960's as an example of perseverance and hard work, we were held to the same standards, forced to find a way to explain what we needed to say even though our Spanish was less than perfect.
In that year my Spanish improved incredibly. Afraid of being scolded or embarrassed in class, I did my homework diligently, looking up all the words I didn't know in the dictionary and coming to class with things to say and questions to ask. I realized that even though my Spanish was not perfect, it was more important to practice it in order to improve rather than succumbing to embarrassment. By the end of the year, I was more confident in my Spanish than ever before, and felt a great deal of pride and accomplishment for my work ethic and positive results. Her lesson, however, was not only that of hard-work but also of the socio-cultural inequalities and every-day struggles for non-English speakers in our country. Although the class was only 50 minutes a day, five days a week for a year, our teacher forced us to consider the perspective of thousands of people that live in a society that does not understand them, and does not sympathize with their situation.
The following year during my senior year, I had a very enlightening experience when I went on a school trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico for two weeks. At last, I was able to apply my Spanish skills in a setting outside of the classroom and experience life in a wonderful and beautiful country. Although up to this point I had been unsure of what I wanted to study in college, it dawned on me somewhere between the three-hour chats I’d had with my wonderful Mexican host family and climbing the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan—I would study Spanish and Anthropology. I loved learning about different cultures and societies, both past and present, and using my Spanish to get to know more about my surroundings. Furthermore, I loved the way that traveling to Mexico obliterated all stereotypes of the country I had heard broadly circulated throughout mainstream media, and also in the narrow halls of my high school. It was at that moment that I realized ignorance of different peoples and the languages they speak should not, or better yet, cannot be tolerated.
Though my Spanish certainly still needs much improvement, I had the opportunity to study in Granada, Spain for the fall semester of 2012 where I was able to strengthen my skills while exploring a beautiful and ancient city. There, I lived with a host family, went to a school located in a 16th century building, and made friends with people from all over the globe. As if it wasn’t evident before, my time in Granada certainly taught me that immersion is essential when learning a language because there is so much that cannot be taught in classroom or from a textbook. Over the semester, my Spanish greatly improved (though admittedly my accent became even funkier as I picked up on the Andalusian dialect), and I gained a strong sense of independence and self-confidence.
Though I was struck by the welcoming nature of most Granadinos, my time spent as an English tutor to a couple of Spanish middle schoolers taught me the immeasurable value of kindness. Once a week for two hours I would visit the home of a Spanish family to talk to their 12 and 14 year old children in English. Although they both had an impressive command of the language and also studied both English and French at school, their parents thought being multilingual was such an important skill to have that they hired me to give them additional practice. However, these Granadinos were not only concerned with the improvements of their children’s language skills, but mine as well. Just about every other week I was encouraged to stay for a delicious home-cooked dinner to bond with the family and practice my Spanish, (an opportunity I unfortunately did not often have with my busy host family). The way in which this family welcomed me into their home and encouraged both me and their children to improve our second languages highlighted various characteristics of Spanish culture that I find to be quite distinct from U.S. culture: that is, the general openness towards foreigners and the appreciation of multilingualism. I will be forever grateful for their overwhelming kindness towards me, their undying patience for my broken, slow-spoken Spanish, and the demonstration that with these two qualities, meaningful connections can be made between people of extremely diverse backgrounds.
Just as I did when I began learning Spanish in my second grade classroom, I still think that learning Spanish is fun and exciting. But after growing up a little bit, I’ve realized that it’s much more powerful than that. To me, speaking Spanish (or being bilingual in general) means connecting with different types of people, being open to different cultures, and celebrating the diversity of our world. It means fighting ignorance and defending social justice by expanding opportunities for non-English speakers in this country. And just as la familia Granadina has shown me, I believe that tolerance and openness to language learning and diversity can send powerful messages that resonate beyond borders, even when, and especially when, such openness is demonstrated on a small scale in local communities. With these small victories, hopefully we will be able to convince the future generation of Americans that language is not what separates people, but rather ignorance and intolerance