The Power of Speech
I’m sure I have posted about this on this blog before, but I just have to reiterate the power of being able to speak to someone in their native language. Think for a minute about someone who is an immigrant in this country… They might not know English very well, even though that’s all they hear day in and day out. They might get berated for not learning English now that they live in the United States, even though our country doesn’t have an official language. So now imagine what it must feel like when a stranger actually speaks to them in Spanish (or whatever their native tongue is). It must be such a relief! Maybe it feels like they are being accepted for they are, maybe it feels like you’re extending an olive branch of sorts to them… I can’t quite be sure because I have never been on that side of such an exchange, but I can tell you what it feels like to be the person who reaches out.
Let me tell you, it is a wonderful feeling to see that other person’s face light up with recognition when you speak to them in their native language. When they smile because you are taking the time to ask them questions about themselves or their family, you feel like just maybe you made a small difference in their day.
And let me also tell you that this spans all ages and genders, it doesn’t matter. Last semester when I took SPAN 232 I volunteered at ECIRMAC (the Refugee Center) and worked mainly with adults. This semester I volunteered at the Crisis Nursery for SPAN 332 and interacted with young children. But using my Spanish skills had the same effect in both places: it seemed to put people at ease. At first the kids at the Crisis Nursery would be wary of me and pretty quiet, but once I started engaging them and speaking to them in Spanish, they opened up. It was like watching a flower bloom right before my eyes and soon they were chattering away to me and we were playing side by side. It was the same thing with their parents; sometimes they had to wait around while the staff gathered things/papers for them when they came to pick up their children. When this happened, I usually tried to talk to them in Spanish. Since I had spent most of the day with their child or children, I would comment on things I noticed or ask them questions about their kids. Spanish-speaking parents are just like any other parents: they are proud of their children. So when I commented to one mother that her daughter was a good big sister to her brothers, or how I noticed her son really liked to open and close doors, she smiled and laughed and relaxed. Then we could actually engage in conversation. I imagine she probably had a bit of a wall up, like many might if they feel like outsiders, like her children did with me at first. But speaking Spanish to all them made a difference.
So just consider that in the future. If you have an encounter with a Spanish-speaking person—whether it’s a 4-year-old child, a peer, a parent, or an elderly person—do NOT be afraid to use your Spanish skills! You may find you put them at ease with something as simple as speaking to them in their native language. And trust me, the looks on their faces will make it totally worth it.