Everything I needed to know about relationships, I learned from a hotel maid

November 29, 2011

There I was, rushing out of my hotel room to head down to the conference when I suddenly realized I hadn’t left a tip for the maid. I’m one of those people who leaves a tip every day for the hotel maid, rather than leaving it all at the end. The cleaning staff have different schedules and throughout my years of travelling, I have noticed, sometimes, that there can be different maids on different days. I figure that if I leave the entire tip at the end, then one person can clean up and any others might go without.

Leaving smaller tips every day has its drawbacks. It means that you can’t be carrying all $20 bills in your purse (unless, of course, you leave the maid a $20 every day.)

Although I haven’t seen her (or him, or them), I suspect that it has been the same person cleaning my room during the three days of my conference. Here’s why:

After the first day, I left a reasonable tip. I had mostly $20s with me, but I cobbled together enough of a tip that it wasn’t an insult. I came back to the room at the end of the day, and my room was clean and nicely arranged. There were a couple of extra drinking glasses in the bathroom. I always stick my toothbrush in one to dry out during the day, leaving only one other glass. The housekeeping staff had added a couple of extra so I wouldn’t run out. Nice touch. (When your job involves enough travelling, you notice the little details in hotels.)

On the second day, I realized that I’d forgotten to get change. All I had were larger bills. “Oh well,” I thought. “I don’t like to do it, but I’ll leave double tomorrow.” I knew in my head what my plan was, but it never occurred to me to leave a note for the housekeeping staff. I went on my way, with a small twinge of guilt in my gut — and a plan to correct my wrong the next day.

When I came back to my room that night, the bare minimum had been done… and the extra bed pillows I’d tossed onto the  arm chair before bed the night before remained there. Again, when you spend enough time in hotels, you notice.

During the day, I had made a point to get some smaller denominations. So, at the beginning of the third day, I did as I had intended and left a double tip.

What happened? I came back to an immaculate and sparkling room. The pillows were arranged perfectly, my personal toiletries were neatly organized on the bathroom counter and there were even extra towels that I had not asked for. Oh yeah, and there were extra bars of soap and bottles of shampoo and conditioner, too.

Of course, we don’t know for sure if it has been the same maid for the last three days. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it was. If I reflect on this possibility, then it occurs to me that there is much to learn from this. Here are 7 things I learned from this exchange:

1. Show appreciation. A little acknowledgement goes a long way in letting others know that you are thinking about them.

2. Non-verbal communication speaks volumes. I have never spoken with the hotel maid. I don’t even know what he or she looks like. But over the last three days, we have communicated with each other in non-verbal ways. Sometimes, it isn’t what you say, it is what you do not say that speaks the loudest.

3. Notice what is going on. Non-verbal communication may say a great deal, but if you are not listening, you will not hear the message. Take the time to notice what is going on around you, what is communicated silently and perhaps, deliberately.

4. Say what needs to be said. I just didn’t have any cash on me yesterday to leave a tip. It wasn’t a sign that I was dissatisfied or that I was being cheap. I could have left a note to say, “No cash with me today. Promise a double tip tomorrow.” I didn’t. In fact, it didn’t occur to me until much later.

5. Consistency creates security. The first day I left a tip and the next day I did not. I was inconsistent in that unspoken language of between a customer and a service worker. If I had been consistent I would have been sending the message that I was consistently pleased with how things were going. In relationships, it is helpful to act in a consistent way.

6. If you screw up, fix it — and fast. I understood from the minimum services that were performed on the second day (the day I didn’t leave a tip) that my house keeper was not happy. In the unspoken rituals of being a hotel guest, I screwed up. I corrected the situation the next day by leaving a double tip. In other words, I fixed the faux pas as soon as it was appropriate.

7. What matters is reality, not theory. Really, it shouldn’t matter if I leave a tip or not. The maid gets paid to do a job and certain duties are expected. That’s the theory. The reality is that to people in the service industry, tips matter. Whether or not you agree with reality is a different issue entirely from the fact that reality itself matters very much.

I’ve learned a great deal over the course of this three-day, silent exchange with this hotel housekeeper whose face I have never seen. I silently salute her (or him) and say, “Thank you for this lesson in human relationships.”

What relationships do you have where non-verbal communication speaks louder than any words between you? How are you listening? How do you address what is real in a relationship, rather than the way you think things “should” be?

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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How to Get a Spectacular Speaker for Your Next Literacy or Language PD Event

April 26, 2011

Sarah Elaine Eaton - Ontario Literacy Conference speaker 2010I’ve had some conversations recently with colleagues looking for speakers for conferences, professional development (PD) events or workshops. They’ve said that they don’t really know where to start looking and find themselves in that classic quandary… “We need someone good… Really, really good… And we have a limited budget!” Where to start?

In 2010 I was inducted into the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS) and I realized that there’s a big gap, a chasm almost, between the world of corporate meeting planners and the non-profit volunteer conference organizing committees. I talk to dozens of professional speakers who are aching to speak at more non-profit and educational events… and volunteer organizers who just don’t know where to find great speakers. There must be a way to get both groups connected!

Here are some tips that may help…

Decide on your budget

Whether you’re working with an entire committee or you’re one person charged with the responsibility of finding an amazing speaker, you’ll want to figure out how much you have to spend. Your budget will generally include two parts:

  • Speaking fee
  • Travel and accommodation

Some speakers have an “all in” fee that includes travel, meals and accommodation. Keynote speeches for non-profit events start at about $500 and go up to $10,000. The fee is often a combination of what the organization can afford and the speaker’s rates. $5000 for a keynote speaking fee is about average, but there is a great deal of variance.

Prospective clients sometimes ask me if I will speak for free. The answer is yes, but there are some rules.

Have a clear idea of what kind of speaker you want

Every event wants someone “good”, but what does that mean to you? Do you want your speaker to entertain, educate or both? Usually, it’s a good idea to get someone who is knowledgeable or an advocate of your subject area. Don’t get in a mechanics expert for a group of literacy practitioners. Make sure your speaker has either worked in the field or is a champion of it.

Beware of the “I need to work” types who will claim to be a supporter of your cause just because they need a gig. A quick Google search can help you figure out who’s really in your corner.

Use your networks to find good speakers

Ask your colleagues, teachers and others for recommendations. Keynoters often get work due to referrals and word of mouth. Don’t be afraid to ask people around you who comes to mind when they think of an engaging presenter. Use professional listservs, Twitter and other social media to get recommendations, too.Auditorum seats

Put out a call for keynotes or plenary speakers

Conferences put out calls for presenters, but don’t often do the same for keynotes or plenaries because they fear that the quality of those who might apply would be lower than if they conducted the search themselves. That’s kind of like saying that a university only accepts students they seek out and they don’t accept applications. Putting out a call for keynotes is a great way to find high quality speakers who are building a reputation – particularly if your budget is very limited. Do an RFP (Request for Proposals) and be clear in your call what fee range you’re looking for, then speakers who are working in that range are likely to apply.

Check out your local professional speaking organization

Really, professional speakers are not as expensive as you may think! There is a stereotype about professional speakers that they have a certain approach (a la Tony Robbins, for example). While it’s true that there are many motivational or inspirational professional speakers, there are also hundreds who specialize in speaking to non-profit and educational audiences.

Professional speaking organizations are usually national organizations. Members must meet a strict set of professional criteria (such as a minimum number of paid speaking engagements per year, letters of reference, etc.) before being inducted into a major national organization. These big organizations are often divided further into state or provincial chapters.

Look for evidence of past success

Good speakers have a track record of success.

In the United States, it is pretty much de rigueur that speakers will have a demo video in the form of a CD, a DVD or a YouTube video. In Canada this may be true for corporate speakers, but has yet to fully catch on for non-profit and philanthropic speakers.

At the very least, a speaker should have testimonials and a list of past clients. Ask for recommendations. Check for a calendar of past or upcoming events. With or without a video, a good indicator of success is a full speaking schedule.

Travel and Accommodation

If there’s one thing that is non-negotiable, it’s travel and accommodation. Your speaker may have traveled all day to get to your event. A hot shower, a clean room and a good meal are a relief after a long day of travel.

Having a greeter at the airport is a nice touch that many non-profit conference organizers overlook.

If you’re trying to save on costs, here’s a tip: Hotel food is often high in calories and not very interesting. Many speakers will appreciate a home cooked meal at the home of a conference organizer. This gives your speaker a chance to get to know you and enjoy some social time.

Allow speaker product sales

I’m baffled by conferences that require speakers to rent a booth in order to sell their products. I suspect that thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars a year are lost at non-profit events because the conference has a policy against product sales. Unless the speaker travels with an assistant, they likely won’t have the time to set up a booth and sell product.

An experienced speaker will likely be busy reviewing their notes or doing other preparations before the presentation – as they should. Once a speaker factors in the cost of a booth, plus the cost of an assistant to set up that booth and sell the product, most, if not all of the revenue they would have made is gone. So, speakers abide by conference policies and leave their books, workbooks, CDs and DVDs at home.

A better option: Set up a table at the back of the room where the speaker is giving his or her presentation. Have a conference volunteer work at that table in exchange for a percentage of the gross sales (20% to 30% of total sales is common). If a speaker sells $500 in books and splits the revenue 70/30 with the conference, then the conference makes $150. The speaker takes away $350, from which he or she will need to pay the costs of production (book printing), packaging and shipping. In the end, it works out to a pretty fair split.

Develop a relationship with your speaker

Don’t think of this as one-time gig. This is your opportunity to develop an on-going relationship with someone. Your speaker may help to promote your event by posting about it on Twitter, Facebook or other social media. They may mention you on their blog or find other ways to drive traffic to your website and positive attention to your organization. Non-profit speakers usually have a deep emotional attachment to their field. They want to get to know you and those you serve. If you develop a relationship, that same person may join you again for future events. Figure out how you can help each other succeed and I guarantee you that you’ll get quality speakers that your audiences will love.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


15 Tips To Be a Successful Expert Panelist

March 31, 2011

Over the past year I’ve been involved in a number of panel discussions as a panelist, host organizer and audience member.

Expert panelists are chosen for their experience, expertise, knowledge and wisdom on a particular topic. Audience members want to gain insight and understanding. As an expert who is invited to speak on a panel, your job is to contribute meaningful input that reflects your particular area.

Here are some “best practices” for experts to shine during a panel discussion:

1. Find out the topic or questions ahead of time – and prepare your answers.

Ask the panel organizer for the questions or topic ahead of time so you can prepare your answers. Don’t go into a panel discussion cold. This is an opportunity to have your voice hard and share your knowledge and wisdom. Taking the time to prepare answers will help you be more articulate in front of a live audience.

2. Avoid saying “As so-and-so just said…”

I once listened to a discussion where one “expert panelist” was so frazzled that another presenter had “stolen all the things” she was going to say, that she just kept saying “As Bob has already said…” and then went on to repeat his findings. There’s nothing that makes a panelist sound less informed!  Instead of saying, “As so-and-so just said…” try these openers:

  • “Building on the example given by s0-and-so, I’d like to add an example from my own experience…”
  • “It seems that so-and-so and I are on the same wave length. I echo what you’re saying and I can add to it with some evidence based on my own research…”
  • “Great point, so-and-so. Your insights echo findings from my own work. Your point reminds me of a study (or an example… or a “how to” tip…)

3. Showcase your unique expertise – without showing off

You’ve been invited to speak because you are a thought leader with “deep knowledge” in a particular area. Rather than offering generalizations, take this as an opportunity to showcase your unique knowledge. Come prepared with examples from your own research and experience. Give specific, rather than general answers, sharing details and evidence based on your own work.

It’s OK to be passionate, but no one likes a know-it-all. Being an expert doesn’t mean that you have all the answers or that your way of seeing things is the only “right” way. Find a balance.

4. Use a “head, hands, heart” approach to prepare answers (and back-up answers)

For every question, prepare 3 possible answers, each of which focuses on one of these areas:

A response from the head – Provide research-based evidence, empirical data or statistics.

A response from the heart – Prepare an answer that includes a personal example, a success story or a response meant to reach the emotions of the audience by motivating them or inspiring them.

A “hands-on” response – Provide practical “how to” information or give examples of how using a particular approach has been successful in a certain context.

Vary the types of answers that you give. If four out of the last five panel members have given heartfelt answers, change it up a bit by offering practical “how to” information. This helps to keep the audience emotionally and cognitively engaged.

Having different types of answers prepared for each question also helps you to avoid a situation where your mind goes blank because the presenter before you said everything you were going to say!

5. Be provocative

Giving answers that are sure to spark debate and further conversation is not a bad thing on a panel discussion. It can keep the session lively and engaging.

Before you make a controversial claim though, be sure to back up what you are saying with some solid evidence. Provide research, statistics and examples to strengthen your position in the debate.

6. Remain professional at all times

You may be part of a panel with someone you loathe or whose views are diametrically opposed to yours. Keep your cool at all times! This will help you shine as a professional. Here are some phrases to help:

  • “I understand where you’re coming from, but I see it differently. The reason why is…”
  • “You can absolutely do it the way that So-and-so is suggesting. Another way to approach this is…”
  • “I must respectfully disagree…”
  • “You know I respect you as a professional and you’ve given a lot to this field over the years. We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye and that helps keep us both on our toes. Here’s how I see this topic…”

7. Learn about your fellow panelists

Who else is on the panel? You may know the others on the panel, and you may not. Check out their backgrounds, experience, education, credentials and previous work they’ve done. Find out what matters to them. This will help you engage actively in a discussion, rather than just give your own point of view.

8. Acknowledge others’ expertise

Let your fellow panelists know that you’ve taken the time to learn about them and their work. Find a way to show appreciation for their contribution to the field. Here are some examples:

  • “Jane, I read your article on this topic that was published in ABCDEFG magazine two months ago. I just wanted to say how insightful I found it.”
  • “By the way, did you know that Joe won the ABCDEFG award for his work in this field last month?”
  • “Don, I was reading your blog last week. I thought your article on this topic was very thoughtful and poignant.”

9. Find out how long you have to give your answers

Panel discussions rarely have enough time to go in-depth on the topics. Ask your host how long you have to answer each question. Prepare answers that will fit within the time frame. Practice your answers aloud and time yourself.

Ask if there will be a time keeper to assist you. A time keeper seated near the panelists can use different colored cards to help panelists manage their time. For example:

  • A green card when there’s 1 minute left
  • A yellow card when there are 30 seconds left
  • A red card – You’re done. Stop speaking.

Avoid running on or taking up too much time. Honour the other panelists by leaving enough time for them to answer, too.

10. Ask about the room logistics and set up

Will you be seated at a table? In arm chairs? I was once part of a panel where there was no stage for the panelists, so in order to ensure we could be viewed from the back of the room, we sat on high bar stools! For me, since I’m 5’1″, it meant that one of my pet peeves was showcased in front a room of 150 people – my feet dangled from the chair. I delicately positioned myself so my feet tucked behind one of the legs of the stool so they weren’t floating in mid-air.

Find out if you’ll be using a mic and if so, will it be hand-held or a lapel mic? Knowing these details before hand will help you to prepare for the event.

11. Ask how you should dress

Is the event business, business casual or casual? Traditionally, darker colours are seen as being more business-like or serious.  If it is, think of yourself in context of the entire panel. You may want to avoid bold patterns or colours that may visually clash with other presenters (unless it’s an aspect of cultural attire that you’re accustomed to, or expected to wear).

The issue of dress is more important is the panel is being video-taped or photographed, so you may want to ask the organizers about whether you’ll be on camera.

12. Arrive early

Ask your host when you are expected to arrive. Even if you’re told “Oh, a few minutes before will be fine,” plan to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the start of the event. Find a good parking spot, greet the organizers and other panel members, find out where to hang your jacket, survey the room and the set up, go to the bathroom and take a few minutes to relax before you’re in front of the audience.

13. Plan to stay late

Chances are, there will be the opportunity to connect with other panelists or engage in one-to-one conversations with audience members who were particularly interested in something you said. Budget at least an hour for networking after the event eventually closes. If there are media at the event, this will also be the time they’ll want to conduct interviews. If you have to leave right away, you could miss a media opportunity.

14. Remember to thank others

Acknowledging the contributions of your fellow panel members, thanking the audience for being there, recognizing funders and showing appreciation for the organizers are all appropriate things to do at the end of a panel discussion.

Again, avoid repeating what others have said. If someone else has already thanked the other experts, add something different such as, “I echo that sentiment. As well, I’d like to thank the volunteers (or set-up crew, or administrative staff, etc…)”

15. Have fun!

Above all else, have fun and enjoy yourself! This is a great opportunity to connect with others in the field and showcase your knowledge. Enjoy your time in the spotlight!

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Language Associations: Spice Up Your Newsletters for Free

January 13, 2011

Are you part of a professional language learning, language teaching or literacy association? Does your association have a newsletter or website with resources for its members? These two items together can add value to an association, making it more attractive for members to belong, pay their dues and take part in activities.

The problem is that it can be difficult to get fresh, relevant content for your newsletter or websites. Many associations rely solely on members or a web master to produce content. This can lead to the same people getting published over and over again, or very little content for your newsletter or site because so few people contribute.

There’s an answer!

Did you know that there are services designed specifically to provide free, high-quality content for your newsletter, website or blog? Yup. No cost to you. The only catch is that you credit the original authors with their work and publish a link to their websites. In return, they agree to share their content at no cost to you. Here are some sites where you can get free content for your website, blog or newsletter:

EzineArticles.com

GoArticles.com

ArticleAlley.com

ArticleDashboard.com

How does it work? Go to one of these sites and enter a search term into their database. Something like “Teaching ESL”, or “Managing EFL schools” or “Promoting Literacy”. The database returns a list of articles written on the topic. I write for a number of these services and give the articles away to anyone who wants them.

Some of these sites screen the articles and others don’t. Most will spell check at the very least.

Here is a checklist of things to look for:

Author credibility – Who wrote the article? What qualifications and experience does he or she have? Some sites have an “Expert Author” category. This usually means that the articles are written by someone with a degree or a specialization in the field.

Content – Does the article meet your readers’ needs? It’s all about your readers and giving them good, solid content they can learn from. “How to” articles are especially popular on these sites. I wrote one called How to Find the Perfect Host Family that readers seemed to enjoy.

Writing – Read over the article before you publish it. Is it well-written? Does it make sense? Is it free of language or spelling errors? Only publish articles that meet your standards.

When you find an author whose work meets your needs and writes in a way that your members will appreciate, you’ll start looking for more of their work. You’ll find other authors whose work you like, too. Before you know it, your website, blog or newsletter will be full of solid content that your members will appreciate.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Proven tips on motivating others

July 24, 2010

Those in leadership positions often need to motivate others to take on a new challenge, perform a task or simply behave in a certain way. There are a number of ways to motivate people around you. The two broadest categories of motivation are extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

First, let’s look at extrinsic motivation. This type of motivation is based on some external reward or punishment. An example of an extrinsic reward would be, “If you get me that document by lunch time, I’ll give you a piece of cake.” This attempts to lure the other person with the promise of something desirable, providing that they do what you want them to do.

Then there’s the opposite, the treat of punishment, if the other person doesn’t do what you want them to do. An example is, “If you don’t get me that document by the end of the day, I’ll punch you in the nose.”

You can see how that might be ineffective. While negative extrinsic motivation may result in the other person doing what you want them to do, it also breaks down respect and trust. You can’t build a solid, long-lasting relationship based on the threats, or the feeling that you’re going to be subject to punishment if you don’t do what someone else wants you to do. Negative motivation that is predicated on the threat of violence is particularly damaging.

Let’s look at intrinsic motivation. This calls upon people to take action for themselves because they themselves choose to do so. Intrinsic motivate wells up from deep inside a person and does not depend on any external reward or punishment.

Naturally, this type of motivation is much more powerful. And it’s also much harder to achieve. It requires time to build a relationship of trust and respect. Even then, there are no guarantees that others will be mobilized to do what you want. That’s the whole point. The other person has choice and control. How do you motivate people intrinsically? Give them more choice and control!

Here are a few tips to help motivate others intrinsically:

  • Make them feel good about what you need them to do.
  • Give clear, explicit instructions. Don’t assume that they will know what to do.
  • Give them a manageable challenge.
  • Give them some control and a choice.
  • Create an environment of trust and respect.
  • Take a cooperative attitude. Help, but don’t do it for them. Let them know they are helping you by doing what you need them to do (on time).
  • Do not compare them to others.
  • Minimize extrinsic motivation. There is no reward other than doing the right thing.
  • Offer praise when it is due.
  • Point out their strengths, abilities and talents.

To motivate others in this way involves a focus on them, not you. Stop thinking about what you want or need and start thinking about what the other person wants and needs.  Allowing the other person to maintain some autonomy will help you build an excellent relationship over the long term.

Accept that sometimes, the other person may not do what you want, regardless of the tactics you use. When that happens you will need to decide if you’re going to resort to extrinsic motivation or if it’s worth it to let this one go and try again next time.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Leadership through Language Learning and Teaching: The Case of Gandhi

May 11, 2010

In February I presented a paper called “Leading through Language Learning and Teaching: The Case of Gandhi” at the “Interdisciplinary Language Research: Relevance and Application Series” at the Language Research Centre at the University of Calgary.

I talked about a study I conducted of Gandhi’s autobiography, An autobiography or the story of my experiments with truth.
My purpose was to uncover and analyze Gandhi’s experiences as a second language learner. Here’s what I found:

1) Gandhi learned 11 languages throughout his life, including his native Gujarati.

2) He used his knowledge of other languages to connect with others on a deeper level, helping them fight for human and civil rights.

3) He believed that all children should learn more than one language.

He says, ““It is now my opinion that in all Indian curricula of higher education there should be a place for Hindi, Samskrit, Persian, Arabic and English, besides of course the vernacular.” (Gandhi, 1948, p. 9)

For Gandhi, language learning and leadership were intertwined. He saw language learning as a way to communicate with others in his own country, to connect with others on a deeper level, understanding their human condition from a compassionate point of view.

While not everyone who learns another language may go on to have a profound effect on the world to the degree that Gandhi did, any person who learns a new language grows as a human being because they can communicate with others in new ways. This helps to develop a more profound curiosity about the world around us, which leads us to learn more about that world. Learning more about the world and those who live in it leads to deeper understandings of other cultures, other values and other ways of understanding life, love, politics, spirituality and all that is important to humans. Learning other languages opens up new possibilities for personal and professional growth, new opportunities to do meaningful work and ultimately, to value others more deeply because we can communicate with them better and understand them.

The presentation included a practical classroom activity for students.

The full-text paper is publicly available on the ERIC data base.

http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED508664

___________

Related posts:

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


How learning Spanish changed my life: A personal story

April 26, 2010

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.


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