By Christina Stuart, AmeriCorps member
I consider myself to be “near-fluent” in Spanish. I’ve studied the language from secondary school through college and even visited Spain and Mexico for brief spans. I can read and write well, but speech is definitely my weakest area. My Spanish ability is at the point where I can have a conversation, but I have fluency gaps that will only be filled by immersion in a Spanish-speaking culture and country for an extended period of time.
Because of this gap, I have a fear of talking to native Spanish speakers. I don’t want to say something wrong or embarrass myself. When I was taking Spanish classes, there was no pressure to avoid mistakes. Everyone, for the most part, was in the same boat—we were learning the language. But when talking to native speakers, it feels like my learning is being put to the test, and I immediately get nervous.
I serve in a school that has a strong English as a Second Language (ESL) program, offering specialized classes for newcomers and English language learners, who encompass over 40 percent of the student body. Nearly 60 percent of the student population is Hispanic, and I interact with Spanish speakers on a regular basis. Recently, my classroom welcomed a new student, Mara*. Mara was a native Spanish speaker, and I could tell that she was nervous.
Throughout the day, I observed my partner teacher speaking a lot of Spanish, one-on-one, with Mara. In addition, I was proud to see many of the other students were trying to help translate for her. As for me, I knew that if I spoke to her in English, she would most likely not understand me. During general instruction time, when we learned in English, I saw Mara looked carefully observing the non-verbal cues of her classmates. She was trying very hard to understand the lessons, but she found herself confused. I wanted to reach out to her, but the fear hit me. What if I said something wrong?
Shaking off this worry, I walked over to Mara. I began explaining what she needed to do for classwork. After five minutes, I completely overlooked the fact that the conversation I was having was entirely in Spanish. Even though there were a few phrases I didn’t know how to say, both Mara and the surrounding students were very forgiving, and they helped me with a few words.
In the end, Mara said that she understood me, and our conversation ended up not being scary after all. When I imagine what it must feel like to go to school and learn in an unfamiliar language, I know that it takes courage—the courage to step out beyond your comfort zone. The same way some of our students feel about speaking in English is very similar to the way I feel about speaking in Spanish. This year, I look forward to more moments of stepping beyond my comfort zone and acting courageously alongside Mara and the rest of the students we serve.
*Name changed to protect student privacy