World Language Teachers on Understanding Other Cultures, What’s Tricky About Being a Polyglot, and Why It’s Worth the Struggle
By Ella Goodyear, Maryalice Anz, and Lucy Gray
Spanish, German, Mandarin, Valenciano, English
Senora Birmanns has lived and traveled in many different Spanish-speaking countries. She says that speaking their language fluently every day can be tiring at times, but it is a fun challenge. She says that the people and the beauty of these countries exceed that of what you see in pictures, or hear. Each country is unique, and the people are all different. She says, “Costa Ricans are the friendliest people on earth and Spain has the most engaging and interesting cities and is just FUN. Mexico has been a place where I have worked and spent a lot of time, and it is a deep and rich culture with WAY more to it than people who just go to Cancún realize.” Getting to explore these places and getting to know the people is an experience you can never forget.
Birmanns first learned how to speak Spanish in high school and chose to continue to study this in college. She also spent time in Spain, which further developed her Spanish. She speaks German fluently because she took classes on it in college, her husband is German, and because she spent a year in Germany. Not only is she fluent in Spanish and German, but she also speaks a little Chinese and Catalan.
When asked about the benefits of knowing and learning other languages, she replied with, “What isn't the benefit? Deeper travel, cultural connections, making friends, learning from others, reading books in their original languages, more job opportunities.” She clearly believes that learning a new language has many benefits and that it can impact your life in huge ways.
Spanish has also affected Birmann’s life outside of teaching and traveling. According to her, 45% of the people where she lives speak Spanish as their first language. She says that knowing their language helps her make deep connections with them that would not have otherwise been formed. Being able to connect with people in this way not only impacts you but also affects the other person. It makes them happy to know that someone cares enough to speak to them in their native language.
Birmanns strongly believes that learning a new language has many benefits. It can give you a better cultural knowledge, and it can give you connections to people that can only be formed through language. There is a certain beauty in being able to share conversation with someone in an unfamiliar way in a place that is unfamiliar to either you or the other person.
English, Spanish, French
Mrs. Casavant has lived in both Spain and France for lengthy periods of time, which gave her insight on what life is like in different parts of the world. She studied Spanish through her high school and college careers, but she didn't really fully reach fluency until she lived in Toledo, Spain for her junior year of college. As she reflected on her time there, she said, “Those nine months completely changed my life.” She didn't know a single bit of French when she moved to France to be an event coordinator, and she says she actually learned most of the French language throughout her years of teaching.
Before anything, a piece of advice she offers for learning a new language is this: do not be afraid to make mistakes. You won’t get anywhere if you set yourself up around those boundaries. Learning a new language is filled with mistakes and bumps in the road, but those hiccups are what bring you closer to being fluent in a new language. “The hardest part about learning a new language is being unafraid to make mistakes during the learning process,” she says. Know that everyone makes mistakes in the process of learning something new; you are not alone in that.
Spanish is second nature for Casavant. If she hears it being spoken, she will automatically shift to it. She almost never has to translate in her brain. She is honest about her trouble with speaking French, which is admirable. She says that she is able to think in French perfectly fine, but when she speaks it, there can be some mistakes. She can become “frozen” when speaking the language, but she has to notice those errors and just move on from them.
Casavant has been a teacher at CCS for three years. When thinking of the student growth she has seen in this short period of time, she says, “I can tell you that I am obsessed with immersion and conversation-based learning, and I have seen greater student gains in the last year than ever in my teaching career.” She believes that the best way to produce better language speaking in students is to let them engage with others. Students can learn better when they can actually engage with the language itself and get to know it by speaking it on a regular basis.
A lot of students take a language class because it’s a required class, but how often do high school students think about the actual benefits of learning a new language? Casavant says, “Pay attention. Speak up. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Having a second (or third) language will open doors of opportunity that you never knew existed.” This touches on the idea that you will only learn as much you let yourself learn. Don’t hold yourself back just because you are scared people with think your question is dumb. The joy when you can actually speak to someone in a different language and have a real connection with them makes all the hard work worth it.
“Enrich yourself. Broaden your perspective. Put yourself out there,” Casavant says as her last piece of advice. “You will only be better for it in the end!!!”
Spanish and English, with Reading Fluency in Ancient Greek, Classical Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic
Ms. Snyder majored in Spanish and also took a few Greek classes in college. She then went on to learn Hebrew, more Greek, and Aramaic in seminary. She studied Latin out of her own interest for it; it was more of an individual learning experience.
Snyder wants to make it clear that her fluency did not come easily. As perhaps many foreign language speakers can attest to, it takes practice and a lot of time and energy to reach that level of talent. She began to study Spanish as a freshman in high school in 2009. She got the start that a lot of people here at CCS do as taking a language is a required course.
When talking more about the benefits of being multilingual, we asked if it was all rewarding. Snyder said a simple two word answer that is encouraging to many students trying to learn a new language currently: “Yeah, totally.” A little anticlimactic? Sure, but it is something that some who are struggling with the study of a new language need to hear in order to continue.
Snyder’s final piece of advice is about perseverance on the front end: “I think you have to get over the initial hill. Once you're over sorta this initial hill of understanding, you are able to put pieces together, but at the beginning it's like you're looking at a puzzle and all the pieces are flipped over, like there's no color, right? And once you get over the hill, you can see the different pieces. You still have to put them together, but at least you can see them, right? It’s just getting over that initial hill and that's really hard. I think a lot of people in Spanish or French really experience trying to climb up that hill.”
Snyder wanted to pursue teaching because she saw how once she learned a new language, her worldview changed. She wanted to see her students' views change as well. The change is inspiring and overwhelmingly rewarding.
English, French, Spanish
Ms. Mahla believes that her time living in France set in stone her fluency with the French language. It was very beneficial for her French speaking skills and also for herself in general. She went to school at CCS and went to Covenant College, so going to France was very eye opening for her. Existing in a whole new environment made her grow as a person outside of a small Christian community.
The language department was very different when Mahla first started to teach at CCS. She felt like she was the young one and lacked confidence, but over time, she grew more comfortable with the teaching environment and the language in general.
When asked about how being multilingual helps in daily life, Mahla says that she learned more about English grammar as she learned the Spanish and French language. She also gave a very thoughtful insight on how foreign languages broaden your perspective on life. Something you think is very natural to you when speaking could be completely different for another person who speaks another language. She says, “Things that feel very familiar and fresh can make even more sense through different languages.”
Learning another language can give you sympathy for others who are trying to learn your native language. Mahla explains how you don’t really know how hard learning a new language from the very beginning is until you are actually doing it yourself.
The hardest part about learning a new language, Mahla says, is the feeling of panic or crisis. These feelings can come from seeing how people speak faster than you do, which can leave you feeling discouraged. Say you have been studying the language for a while, but you see someone else speaking it better. That feeling can send you into a spiral of questions about whether you should continue learning the language and leave with you the idea that all of the hours studying has just been a waste of time. Mahla identifies it as an “Insecurity Crisis,” feeling like you don't have as much knowledge about how to speak the language as other people. She believes that if you have the drive to stick with the language, this feeling will go away over time. You just have to want to work through it and not give up over these insecurities.
On the benefits that a new language can bring, Mahla says, “I have so many relationships in my life that I have just because I speak French, and it opens the door to all sorts of people who you never thought would come into your life.”
We asked her what led her to become a language teacher, and she gave a piece of advice her parents gave her as she struggled with choosing what to study in college: “Choose what you love, and God will open doors with that.” She studied Spanish and French because that was her passion. As she studied it throughout college, she realized she wanted to continue that passion. Right after she graduated from Covenant, she got her teaching position at CCS. Being a teacher for Mahla is a joy because she loves to do it. She stuck with her language speaking even through the bumps of the journey and even when she had no idea what she wanted to do after college. When you have a passion for something, you will achieve those goals that coincide with said passion.
Jorge Segura is a Spanish teacher at East Ridge High School. He speaks fluent English and Spanish and taught at CCS for the 2019-2020 school year. Since he only taught at CCS for one year, he has a unique perspective on the language department and its growth.
In comparison to various schools with differentiating language departments, Segura found that CCS’s language department was very well established upon his arrival. He observed a steady growth in opportunities for students and the program as a whole, but he mainly observed a tremendous growth in the understanding of individual students. This growth (in regards to individuals), however, does not refer to a significant increase in proficiency in the Spanish language itself, but rather the understanding of other people, particularly Hispanics and undocumented immigrants. This view of growth greatly represents Segura’s mission for teaching.
“I am not a Spanish teacher because I love Spanish; I love Spanish, but I am a Spanish teacher because I have this cool opportunity," Segura says. I feel like I am good at it, but it's not my priority. If you learn Spanish in my class, that’s good. But my goal is to teach you other things, deeper things that go beyond Spanish.” The opportunity that Segura refers to in this statement is the opportunity to share his story and shape a student’s view on the world.
Segura grew up as an undocumented immigrant. Coming to the United States from Mexico at the age of three, he was immediately immersed in American culture, particularly the culture of Alabama. This culture plays a major role in Segura’s identity as an individual, as being immersed in two contrasting cultures created a feeling of not fitting in with one or the other. Throughout his childhood, Segura sought to be seen as American. He felt as if he was an outsider due to his identity as a Mexican and an immigrant, even though many parts of his life could be seen as pieces of a normal American childhood: playing American sports, participating in activities in his community. “[Growing up undocumented] is just part of who I am; this undocumented, illegal person. You grow up in the United States at a very young age, you still see yourself as American, but you’re not.” Now a citizen of the United States, a husband, a teacher, and a father, Segura continues to grow in understanding of his identity as an American, a Mexican, and as a follower of Christ within modern society.
English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese
Senor Sharpe is a new Spanish teacher at CCS. This is his first year teaching here, but before coming here he taught at Christian Academy of Knoxville (CAK). He credits his smooth transition to CCS because of the similarities in the schools, but also to CCS administration. Sharpe is fluent in both English and Spanish, meaning that he does not have to mentally switch between languages. He does find that the addition of a third and fourth language--French, German, and Portuguese--makes speaking those languages a little more difficult. He says, “When I went to Portugal one year, I found that at first I couldn’t stop inserting certain Spanish words in my conversations!” He explains how he taught himself Portuguese and took French and German during some of his time at college.
Sharpe has also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time abroad in Spain where he was able to further his understanding of the language. “My experiences living abroad enriched my language learning process and showed me the importance of speaking the language in ultimately acquiring it,” he says. “This has especially motivated me to make my classes more conversational so that students are equipped to actually speak the language.” Not only did living in Spain increase his understanding of the culture and language, but it also impacted his teaching methods. He teaches almost all of his classes in Spanish, forcing students to speak and converse in the language. This helps students intentionally think about the language.
When asked what the hardest part about learning a language was, he says that when first learning Spanish it is really easy because you can have basic conversations, and you understand almost everything because it is simple. About the intermediate levels of language learning, however, he says this: “Frustration can set in once a student enters the intermediate levels and realizes the complexity and nuance of language.” Sharpe says that once you push through the frustrating parts, you are able to understand the language, and walk away enriched by it.
When asked, as a closing question, why he wanted to become a language teacher, he said, “I found that I really enjoyed the process of making a foreign language pertinent and meaningful to students. It was also rewarding to see students grow in their language proficiency and there was never a dull moment in the classroom.” In closing, we see the love that Senor Sharpe has for languages, and how much he wants to see others grow in their language skills. Senor Sharpe is a great Spanish teacher, and we can't wait to see how the language department grows because of him.
All in all, the benefits of learning a new language outweigh the struggles that you will face through the process. All foreign language speakers, and especially teachers, know the said struggle, but most will say it is more rewarding than anything. The study of a new language should not be something that feels like an obligation, it should be something that excites you. It will carry you as you apply to certain jobs, as you travel the world. When your brain has the capacity to learn more than just your native language, the possibilities in front of you can be endless.