Becoming Bilingual

One teacher shares her experience learning a new  language

By Lilly Moffett

As the second most spoken language in the United States, according to huffingtonpost.com, Spanish is becoming more prevalent in the everyday life of Americans, and the need to learn more than one language continues to grow. Although some people have the luxury of living in a household where two languages are spoken, many do not, and learning a new one proves to be difficult. Recently, “The Viking Saga” sat down with Spanish teacher Jessica Garcia, who shared her experience learning a second language and how she manages raising a young child in a bilingual household.

What sparked your interest to learn a second language?
Before middle school, I really wanted to learn a second language. I was so excited to get to middle school, because my elementary school didn’t offer any languages. So when I was in sixth grade, I was looking forward to taking French, and in my school I had to take ½ a year of both French and Spanish. When I took Spanish, I really, really loved it, and when I took French I really, really loved it, and I had a very hard time deciding. I chose Spanish because I loved my teacher…and by eighth grade I gave up my flex period [study hall] to finish Spanish one and test out of that so in high school I could go straight to Spanish two. By that time I already knew I wanted to take as much Spanish as I could because I loved learning other languages. I thought it was really neat to know a different way to communicate with other people and the more I learned about Spanish places, the more interesting they seemed to me.

How did you further pursue your love for the language as you continued through  school?
In high school I didn’t have the chance to travel to any Spanish-speaking countries but I did try to start reading books and listening to Spanish music on my own…Whenever I could get my hands on a Spanish magazine or Spanish novel or any Spanish songs, I would always take the opportunity to figure it out, so I was very motivated in that way. And then in college I continued to develop my skills. Since I was on a four-year scholarship, I didn’t have the opportunity to study abroad for a whole semester. When I finished my bachelors, I enrolled in a masters program in Salamanca, Spain.

What was it like studying abroad?

 It was fun. By the time I went to Spain, I had already traveled to Mexico and Puerto Rico with friends. Those were shorter amount of times, but studying abroad in Spain was my first time being gone for the whole summer. I really loved the experience of studying abroad and I wish I would have had the whole academic semester. I loved doing my homework in the Plaza Mayor, and I was with three of my friends. We would go out to eat a lot, and we took that opportunity to travel around Spain as well, since we didn’t have classes on the weekends and we wanted to make the most out of our trip.

What advice do you have for students trying to learn a new language?
I think you have to push yourself, especially if you live here in the US where everything is available in English. If you are really serious about learning a language, you have to seek out those opportunities and you have to push yourself. You have to be resilient as well because language learning is a process, it’s not just like studying for a test where you just learn facts. It is more than that. At first you are going to feel like you are not doing well, or that you are not able to defend yourself with exactly what you want to say, but all of those moments will actually push you and make you better. Be kind to yourself and realize that it is a process that will not always be easy.

 

How long would you say it took you to become fluent in Spanish?

    I would say I was at the intermediate level when I left high school, and now I’m at the advanced level, but I never stop practicing. I am obviously a Spanish teacher so I practice everyday, but my family is also Spanish so I have the opportunity to practice more than others. I also stay up-to-date by reading news in Spanish and listening to songs, and with Netflix, I can even watch Spanish shows. I think that it is really important to never stop practicing your language.

What do you consider the benefits of learning a second language?

    I think it is really good for your brain because it keeps your brain nimble. You make better connections between your first and second language. You learn more vocab words than a monolingual person, and you learn more deeply what others are trying to convey and their experience. There are many subtleties that when we translate from one language to another get lost. The more you understand another language, the better you can understand other people. You can get to know people a lot better.

What is it like raising a child in a bilingual household?

    It is actually very difficult. You have to be very consistent. Right now, my son is English dominant. He knows lots of words in Spanish and he understands Spanish, but he cannot speak in sentences. You have to trust that they will learn their English elsewhere and be dedicated to speaking only one language in the household.You have to rely on the science that says they will get the English output outside of the home. If I were more dedicated to that, only using Spanish, he would be better at speaking sentences by now. It is extremely difficult to be consistent…but it is also makes you really happy when they use the other language. I remember on Halloween my son was dressed up like Woody from “Toy Story” and he saw a little boy dressed up like Buzz Lightyear and since we let him watch movies in English and Spanish, he screams to the little boy “Buzz, hay un amigo en mi” because he had heard that and does not realize that everyone does not speak Spanish. It is really cute when you see that it [speaking a second language] is working since the process cannot always be easy.

What do you hope your son will gain from being raised in a bilingual home?

    I hope that he is going to have a better understanding of where his family comes from, being a linguistic minority. His father had to learn English when he was 17 years old to be competitive in this country, and much of his family still lives in Colombia, so understanding Spanish will allow his to have those relationships with his family. Also, it is going to give him the ability to learn more languages, because usually it gets easy to learn new ones as you go on. Hopefully he will see it as a benefit instead of a nuisance, as some students view it.

 

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