Students worry about offending native speakers

  • Posted: 3/3/2013 4:25 PM
    6/1/2013 5:57 PM

Teachers live for those moments when some piece of the subject matter strikes a personal cord with their students. It is better than a spike in test averages or going home with a voice. It just so happened that last week, one of those moments occurred. Lesson plans for the day had my classes discussing comparatives. Comparatives are the statements in language where one noun is compared to another using an adjective. Example: The fruit is as delicious as the vegetables or that t-shirt is brighter than the sun. In both Spanish and English the structure of this sentence is pretty straight forward. Clues like "as" and the suffix "er" trigger its use. In Spanish, the triggers are words like más, tan, que and como.

Grammar lesson aside, - although I encourage personal investigation - it is important to point out that the word que is a stumbling block for a lot of students. They get tied up in the fact that the word means one thing in one sentence and something completely different in another. In most cases the word que means "that" but for comparative purposes it is translated to "than" when combined with an adjective.

Every class period last week had their hang-ups with this word and its use in a sentence. They understood where it fit among other words but did not comprehend how a native speaker could understand them using one word in their tongue to mean another.

The problem for most was this fear of using the wrong word. They do not want to speak because they don't want to get it wrong. Subsequently, they were worried that use of the wrong term and/or grammar would make them feel inferior or even worse, insulting to a native speaker.

Up until last week, a response like this would not have happened in my classes. Nearly all of my students had no personal interest to the language. They simply viewed Spanish as another course in high school they need to have to go to college. Furthermore, only a select few would ever go out of their 50 minutes a day to practice more than what is assigned. Still, as this shift in interest happened period after period, I could not help but ask myself why. What caused a change in my students to suddenly care about how a Latino would view them?

I found an answer in one of them later in the day. A student unknowingly answered my question simply by saying this: "I want to try and talk to people when I go out to eat Mexican food, but I'm afraid what I say is wrong."

I don't know if her saying this made me happier as a teacher or more confirmed as a columnist. She summed up in an admission almost exactly what I want to get out of teaching or writing.

Admittedly, I chuckled a little and told her what she said probably is wrong. Nine times out of 10 we get what you are meaning to say and occasionally find it sad if you do not try. Meaning is more powerful than translation and effort, all the more potent.The altruistic idea that people just want to be affirmed in their place is no more real and prevalent then amongst our youth. It is frightening to be wrong or misunderstood so I get their restraint. But, as I told them, it is much more alarming to be put in an awkward silence.

A little talk has done wonders.

Since last week I am finding more and more of my students willing to go outside of their comforts and are awakening and uncovering some nuances about who they are culturally and linguistically. It is February and I am just now finding out from many of them that they know someone close to them that speaks Spanish, a fact that helps exponentially to their growth.

This year of teaching is revealing that each student is not far removed from knowing or even being related to someone of Hispanic heritage. In turn, this must say something about the community. At the moment I don't understand it, but I do get what it means.