Though my schedule includes four hours of Spanish lessons every day, in the mornings I volunteer at Centro Cultural de Bartahola Norte. I work as a tutor and teacher’s aide for their English classes.
The center at Bartahola Norte was founded in the 1980s by a Catholic priest and a woman who wanted to provide the people of the poor neighborhood an opportunity to learn, grow, and get to know one another in a safe environment. It has always tried to help children and women, focusing on educating them on their human rights and other tangible skills they wanted to learn. Sewing classes, theater classes, and after-school programs are some of the activities they offer. English classes are another.
Currently, the English class has about 25 students, roughly between 18 and 25 years old. There are a couple of older women there that want to eventually get a better job through knowing English. Two employees trade off days to teach and grade homework, and they create a fun atmosphere for the students in the open-air area of the compound.
I arrive around 8:15 in the morning Monday-Thursday to tutor any of the students that want help. I have recently made a break through with one student. She has very little understanding of English and I think she is quite shy as well. Before, when I would try to tutor her, she would look away and pretend no to hear me when I asked a question. I would repeat myself, very slowly, separating each word (not each syllable, because that is impossible to understand!) in English, and still she would not look at me. I would try speaking normally in Spanish, and still not get a response. Finally, this week, she began responding to me. I have told her that when she doesn’t understand something, she needs to say “I don’t understand,” in English or Spanish, and I can help, rather than look away and ignore me.
Other students have been through the class before and have a good vocabulary. Sometimes I don’t know the Spanish word, but they know the English word and can help me help another student. It’s a little humbling. But we’re all working together to learn a different language, so it’s also wonderful. Sometimes the class is challenging because of poor attendance, few turn in homework, and they don’t follow instructions in class well at all. Today it was like pulling teeth to make them play a game.
I easily get discouraged with my Spanish, particularly when a couple of the male students speak rapidly and then find it funny when I don’t understand. My family often laughs at my mistakes. Not in a “you’re stupid” way, but in a “that’s a silly mistake” way. Still, after enough times, laughter is not pleasing no matter how they mean it.
In fact, the taxi driver that picked me up from Bartahola Norte today saw me speaking English with a fellow volunteer and scolded me on the way home. “You only speak English,” he said. “You never speak Spanish. You do not understand Spanish. You will never learn because you only speak English.”
I was rather offended. To be honest. Because I’m very tired of people telling me that my Spanish is “malo” or “so-so” or I only know a little. So I told him, “I do speak Spanish! I spoke with you this morning in Spanish. I speak Spanish at my house, in the school, and sometimes to the students at Bartahola. And I’m speaking to you in Spanish right now.”
He told me, “But you were speaking English earlier.”
“Yes, because we are both from the U.S.,” I replied.
And I wanted to add, “I speak Spanish, not well, but I can speak it. And the only word in English you know is ‘Spiderman,’ so you can’t talk.” But that would have been rude. And un-Christlike. So I did not. But I thought it very loudly.
An hour later, I had lessons at Viva, and I recounted the story to my first teacher, Elvin. At the end he laughed and said, “You speak Spanish really well when you are angry! You didn’t make a single mistake. I think I need to make you angry tomorrow.” He went on to tell me that my Spanish is not bad at all, and is improving quickly. He was even so generous enough to say that I know 55% of Spanish and he knows 35% of English, which is a big fat lie f0r both of us, but it was really sweet of him to say.
My second teacher, Marjorie, told me that many people just don’t understand how hard it is to learn a second language, and that I am doing well and my grammar is good. People that tell me my Spanish is bad just don’t know English or any other language, nor how difficult it is to learn.
I much prefer to believe my teachers.