Monday, March 3, 2014

The Truth Nobody Told You about Speaking Spanish

"Spanish in the Community" students, using Spanish in the classroom.
My "Spanish in the Community" students wrote their first reflective essay, and Justin Sandler focused his on what it's really like to learn Spanish and communicate with native-speakers. I was struck by his insightful understanding of what our language education took years to understand: communication, not perfection is the key. I asked Justin if I could share his essay, and he graciously agreed. He translated it to English and made some changes here to make it less about his specific experiences doing community service learning, and more about what it really means to use a language to construct understanding between two individuals, two cultures. --Ann

The Truth Nobody Told You about Speaking Spanish
by Justin Sandler

It has consistently interested me that so many students say that they can understand Spanish and know a lot of vocabulary and grammar, yet they are so afraid to speak it. Often times these types of students are even Spanish minors and majors.  I feel that students of the Spanish language have this idea that speaking Spanish with Hispanic people must be done without errors since they are native speakers. I believe that this is a paralyzing approach that will prohibit many students from learning Spanish, or any other language for that matter.  In this post I hope to illustrate the point that speaking Spanish is much more about communication than perfection. Below I go through a couple important points to create a confidence in this new perspective of language pursuit.

Firstly: You do not need to speak Spanish flawlessly to speak Spanish. Not only is it not possible to speak without errors, but it is also not even necessary.  Again, speaking in another language is not about perfection but about communication.  Do not worry about using your advanced grammar, difficult words and big beautiful ideas.  It is most important that you communicate what you wish to. Plus even our English majors here at U of I do not always speak their own language and major perfectly, so take some comfort in that. Perfection is not your friend, communication is.

Secondly: You do not need to understand Spanish flawlessly to speak Spanish. If you can understand 50% or more of the words and structures that a person uses, than it is very possible you will understand the main ideas as well.  Remember that it’s about communication.  The context clues can be extremely useful as well. Watch the other person’s eyes, their hands, the way they speak and the rises and falls of their voice. From all this, and simply the context of what is around you, there are a lot of things to cue you of the meaning needed to understand. All of this is part of using another language, extending far past comprehension of individual words.

Thirdly: It is extremely rare that anyone will be upset with you for making errors while speaking with them in another language.  If it is our fear that we don’t want them to be mad at us and think we are idiots, well, they don’t.  This is simply what we think they will think; not how it actually is.

I think this stems from the idea that as Americans we can be very harsh judges of peoples English, especially those who speak it as a second language.  This is simply part of our culture, largely because we are the most powerful country, and that business usually is conducted in English throughout the world.  However for what I have seen outside of the US, people are so proud that we have gone out of our way to learn about their beautiful culture and language.  This is something that really excites them, and they usually want to be part of it and help. Think of the other person as someone who wants to make the interaction happen, not as someone making fun of you. For everything right (or even close to right) that you do, they get super excited to praise you.  For everything wrong that you do, that understand anyway and would love to help if you want them to. Pretty good deal I think!

It may very well be the case that we have this same fear of being judged because our only experience of using Spanish is in a class room, being judged!! How ironic is that?  The one thing that is supposed to teach us to comfortable with the language, at the same time, seems to (in a strange way) paralyze us. Of course not all Spanish classes are like this, and these classes are very important to our development, but remember that this is the real world I am talking about, not a college bubble where we are taking oral exams and getting points off for saying things wrong.  They want to give you a 100%, not take points off you. By our new logic: if you can have the strength to walk into a Spanish class room, then you can also have the strength to communicate with your Spanish. 

Fourthly:  I think a lot of students might feel that since they have a different culture and background on how they see the world, that there is a little bit of a disconnect there past the simple “language barrier.”  I feel this is also a dangerous idea since it is one more thing that makes us students think, “Oh boy, there is a big gap here, and I’m not so sure my Spanish is going to bridge it….after all…I did get a B – on my midterm…” 

Try to think of Hispanic people as people just like you.  This is not a mind trick, they really are.  All people, Americans, Hispanics and beyond really hold true to a handful of basic things that make us all the same.  For example, they have families, as we do.  They have friends, school, work, girlfriends, boyfriends, music, parties, clubs, bars, drinks, foods, stress, fears, hopes and dreams, insecurities, love and… we all have these same things!  Don’t think of them as “Hispanic people.” Instead just think of them as “people” because that’s really a more accurate way to see anyone, especially when you want to connect with someone else, which is the whole point of learning another language. Right?

I know that learning a different language can be difficult, but remember that we are all people and that our interactions in real life (not Spanish class) are about communication, not perfection.  If we can understand this idea, then we can overcome this barrier of fear and learn to speak Spanish.  Now that we have knocked down the big barriers, it is time for you to take your Spanish to the next level. This is the truth nobody told you about speaking Spanish.  Ready: GO!



PS A special thanks to the Spanish classes that helped bring us this far J

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