A few days ago I was sorting through some old documents. I came across this piece that I wrote for the students of a Spanish class I was teaching at Mount Royal University a few years ago. It explains the positive effect learning a second language had on me, acting as an anchor and source of inspiration at one of the most stressful points in my early adulthood. Here’s the story I shared with my students:
As I look around our classroom, I see tired faces, drained by too many exams, work schedules that are too hectic and lives that may not give enough time for fun, rest and relaxation. As we draw closer to the end of the semester, the crunch is on to cover material, plow through assignments, and study for finals. The focus shifts from the process of learning and discovering, to the need to reach the finish line in whatever way spells success for each of us.
I wanted to take a few minutes to share a story with you. I know you are busy people with busy lives, so if this isn’t a good time, set this story aside and come back to it later.
The story takes place in 1992 in Madrid, Spain, where I was studying in a summer immersion program for international students. I had taken one year of Spanish in 1991-92 at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, where I graduated that May with my B.A. in English. The winter semester had been hell on wheels.
I was hit by a car the night before classes were scheduled to start in January.
My boyfriend of a year and a half, who was with me at the time of the accident, broke up with me a month later, saying that when he saw me get hit he really couldn’t have cared if I lived or died. He moved out the next day. I lost a job because I couldn’t get to work while I was recovering and I wondered how the heck I was going to pay the rent and buy food. I missed a few weeks of classes. My grades were sliding and I was panicking.
When I made it back to classes in February, I was sitting in Spanish class one day and the instructor brought some forms to class. If anyone wanted the chance to go and study Spanish language and culture, we could fill out a form to apply for a beca or grant, compliments of the Spanish Embassy. I thought, “Yeah, man, anything to get the heck out of here for a while!” I filled out the form.
I more or less forgot about it, as I was trying to put my life back together through the rest of the semester. One day in May, just before graduation, I got a letter from the Spanish embassy. Of course, I couldn’t read very much of it, but I guessed that it wasn’t a rejection letter, because it wasn’t just one sheet of paper. (Ever notice how letters telling you that you didn’t get something are only ever one page long?) There was a whole bunch of stuff in the envelope. So, I took it to school the next day and asked my Spanish professor to tell me what it said. “You got it!” She said. “You’re going to Spain!”
The beca covered tuition, books, residence and food. I didn’t have the money for the plane ticket, so I sold everything I had, worked some extra hours at one of the jobs I still had and gathered the money to go. A week after graduation, I was in Madrid.
There were a few hundred students in the program, from all over the world. The Spanish embassy gave away a limited number of scholarships each year to different countries. I later found out that I was one of two Canadians selected that year. We were placed in classes according to level. After studying Spanish for one full year, and making it out with a decent grade, despite the challenges of the second semester, I was not prepared for the experience. There were 18 different levels of classes. My placement test determined that I would be in level 17 – the second lowest of all the classes.
My classmates were from Europe and the Middle East. The other girls in my residence were from all over the world. The only language we had in common was Spanish. We found that if we wanted to make friends we had a choice: only associate with other people who spoke our first language (in my case, English) or try to make friends in Spanish. The result was a linguistic hodgepodge – people ended up communicating however they could, in whatever language they could. We communicated what we could in Spanish and helped translate for each other in whatever language we could… English, some Danish, some French, some Arabic… whatever we had as a group to help each other understand and bridge our linguistic and cultural gaps.
Two of the people who ended up in our circle of friends were Salim and Imad, both from Jordan. Salim was in my class and Imad was in the class of one of my Danish friends who was much more fluent in Spanish. We toured the city, went for coffees, studies and did all the normal social things that students do.
It was July of 1992. In the scope of world events, the Gulf War was still fresh in everyone’s mind. I remember the day that they announced the war. As I watched TV, I thought, “But… there wasn’t supposed to be a war in my lifetime…. World War II was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Isn’t that what our parents fought for?” But the Gulf War happened and I was pinned to CNN through most of it, just like everybody else.
One day near the end of our program, after a few weeks of gaining language skills and solidifying friendships with the people who had come together in our social circle, I summoned the courage to ask Salim about the button he wore every day on his lapel. It was a photo button of Saddam Hussein’s face.
I was curious about why anybody would wear a button of Saddam Hussein. After all, the guy was a maniac! But Salim wasn’t a maniac…. I just didn’t get it. When I asked him about it, he said, “He’s my hero. He helped our people.”
From there, the conversation took off, in broken Spanish, as we discovered each other’s point of view, the perceptions we had gained from the media, and our stereotypes about each other’s part of the world. The conversation took place on the steps of the Muslim students’ residence. The Muslim students were segregated to accommodate their dietary needs and to provide for quiet at regulated prayer times. The males lived on one side and the females on the other. Foreign students were not allowed in the residence, so if we wanted to visit, we did so on the steps of the building. Some nights there would be students out there with guitars, singing. Other times, there were groups of students chatting and studying. That night, a small group of us talked about war, terrorism, our heroes and our opinions, stereotypes and attitudes.
Through the course of that conversation I found out that the reason none of the Jordanian girls had made friends with me was because they thought I was promiscuous. That summer, there was a drought in Spain and the thermometer hit 40 degrees Centigrade. I was melting. I wore Bermuda shorts and sleeveless T-shirts and sandals to class (not even “skinny straps”, just sleeveless.) In their minds, I showed too much skin and I was shameless. They were comfortable in their head-to-toe covering and did not want to associate with someone who “dressed like a prostitute”. Needless to say, few of them had experienced the harsh, cold climate I was used to, and nor did they seem to understand that I was struggling in the heat.
I learned a lot that night… about the Gulf War and what it meant to these people who had become my friends, about how other people perceived me and the culture that I come from and about what it means to be human. By the end of the night, none of us had actually changed our opinions, but we did learn a lot about each other and about ourselves, as we gained perspective, listened and shared.
I tell people that trip changed my life. After returning home, I decided to return to university to study Spanish, which my family didn’t really “get”, to say the least. But what changed my life wasn’t the verbs that I learned to conjugate (even though I do love verbs!). It wasn’t the grammar that I crammed into my brain so I could pass my final. It was the connection I was able to make with other human beings because I was able to communicate with them, even if was broken and jumbled and not very fluent.
I’ve lost touch with most of the people from that course, but I’m still in touch with a few of them. Last year, Lene, one of the Danish girls, came to Calgary to visit me. It was great to re-connect. All of us send and receive holiday cards, letters, e-mails and even the occasional phone calls with friends all over the world.
Since September 11, those that us who have remained in touch have re-affirmed our friendships with each other on a more regular basis. E-mail has certainly made it easier to stay in touch. Over the past few weeks, we have shared our thoughts on the new War that has erupted. Like the Gulf War, it seems to be the Middle East and North America that are the two big players. We watch what goes on and chat over the net about it.
But the e-mails are not just about the war. We talk about our lives, our jobs, our friends and family and other regular, everyday things. We talk about the ordinary stuff that makes up our lives. And the only thing that brought us together was a language course in Spain. My Arabic friends still don’t speak any English and I still don’t speak any Arabic. I suspect that’s the way it will always be. Spanish is still the only language that we all have in common. Our friendships have evolved and strengthened over the years. We wonder if we will ever meet in person again. Nobody knows the answer. In the meantime, we enjoy the friendships that we have come to mean a great deal to us despite – or maybe because of – language barriers, cultural and religious differences and half a globe separating us.
In the long run, it’s not about the verbs, the grammar or the vocabulary. Those are just the things you have to learn to pass the tests. The tests are little milestones you have to pass along the journey of this course. And within the context of the course, they are both your challenges and your markers of success. Your job is to rise to the challenge each time, even though you’re tired and getting burnt out. In the bigger picture though, the course is just a little milestone along your course of study. Your studies extend beyond the classroom, to the world and the individuals you meet along the way who are studying, just like you and me.
It is unlikely that any of you will have a story just like this to tell. Perhaps this course is the end of your Spanish language journey. But I know that you will have your own stories to tell, about things that would not have had the opportunity to experience, if you hadn’t made the decision to be a student. As our finish line looms ahead, let’s remember that in the bigger picture, this course is just one more milestone on the big journey.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.