My connection with languages began early in my life. As a child who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba, I learned English by total immersion and was fluent and successful in school within nine months. I came during a time when bilingual education had not taken root and I consider it a blessing today that my circumstances forced me to face the difficulty of attending school with no language help whatsoever. It made me determined and helped me develop strategies that later on would help others learn English and Spanish as second languages. In my varied experience, there are two ideas that I fervently promote and believe: anyone who has learned a first language is also capable of successfully learning a second language, and secondly, as a high school Spanish teacher, I do not believe it is ever too late to develop pronunciation of a language at a high level or to do professional work abroad in that language.
Before I came to Sewickley Academy, I spent several years teaching at the university level and encountered many students who either had been unsuccessful earlier in their lives with a second language or were attempting to learn Spanish for the first time. Each semester these students would approach me the first day of class and tell me that I should have little expectation from them because they already knew they would be mediocre students. In my classes, this was not to be. I would immediately ask them why they considered themselves mediocre and I received the common list of problems: “I can’t pronounce well, I can’t do grammar, I can’t memorize vocabulary.” I would confidently let them know that this would be their best class in the semester. To their surprise, I was right more often than not. This success required that my students effectively put time into their learning by following certain guidelines and strategies.
Learning a new language can be done quite similarly to learning other subjects and information. It contains new words and meanings we must practice with similar effort as in learning science terminology. It incorporates rhythm and intonation, as when we learn how to place each word into the timing of a new song. It is shaped by grammatical structures we can learn as if learning the structure of different molecules. Finally, it contains new sounds we can produce by understanding how changing the simple position of your tongue controls what we hear. It is a beautiful combination of all types of skills to communicate our thoughts, desires, and histories with no additional tools than ourselves. What’s even more beautiful is that we can all master languages by applying the correct strategies, by actively practicing and being open to success.
One of the skills required in language learning is memorization and recall. No matter which method one uses to learn a language – immersion, listening to tapes, or self-teaching with a book – one must actively memorize and repeat in order to retain. In many of my classes at Sewickley Academy, I have had students gasp when I give them 10 minutes to memorize a set of 10 to 12 new words followed by a quiz. After a few moments of panic, I calm them down and ask them to separate the words into three categories: those that look like English, those that remind them of something, and those that will require “cold memorization.” It is often the case that the majority of the words can be handled without the last category. As for the results of the quiz, most students earn an “A” and leave with a lesson in hand.
Academy students are taught by the most excellent language teachers I have encountered in my teaching career. We are here to help students develop their own strategies for language learning and to encourage them to see themselves as successful language speakers. Every student can learn and succeed by putting forth effort and applying his or her teacher’s suggestions into his or her learning. Everyone can succeed!