Starting from Zero

Learning a foreign language is an enormous challenge, especially for adults, and many give up within the few first months of study. Students’ initial enthusiasm can quickly deflate as they feel uncomfortable and foolish with the new sounds and structures. No sane adult enjoys feeling like a baby, standing up for two seconds just to crash down again…in front of other people. Students think, “I knew it: I’m just not good at languages,” and they quit.

 It doesn’t help when they hear people who can speak the language really well say that they’ve only been studying for X amount of time (which, by the way, is usually a serious exaggeration: people rarely admit how long they’ve actually been studying). Even worse are the proficient speakers who claim they’ve never had any formal instruction at all. I usually want to slap those people.

Add this to the fact that many students underestimate the amount of time and dedication required to succeed at language learning, and it’s no wonder so many give up. People mistakenly believe that by warming a chair for several hours a week, they will become fluent speakers.

True, some people pick up languages faster than others, but I suspect that if we were to study what these “naturals” are doing outside the classroom, we would find that they are putting more effort into the task than we thought – or they wanted us to think.

I have been studying Spanish for eleven years now, not counting four years of High School in which I learned how to say, “Hola, cómo está usted?”, and I have been the most dedicated student imaginable: reading books, magazines, and newspapers in Spanish; listening to music in Spanish, even when it’s awful; watching TV and movies in Spanish; spending hours every week in cafes and bars conversing with Spanish speakers; spending lunch breaks with my dad’s workers at his nursery (all from Mexico); living in Spain for six months and Costa Rica for over four years; taking several weeks of intensive immersion programs in Mexico and Ecuador; getting a second bachelor’s degree in Spanish; and never giving up my dream of being bilingual despite many moments of embarrassment and people mocking my accent.

My hard work has paid off. Yesterday my doctor told me my Spanish was perfect. I know it’s not true, but it was nice to hear. She asked me how long I’ve been studying Spanish, and surely she expected to hear a shorter amount of time because I watched her impressed expression fall into pity when I told her. I’m used to that reaction. But I would rather tell people the truth at the risk of them thinking that I’m not so smart or I’m not a natural than lead them to believe that this has been easy for me.

Knowing first-hand how challenging learning a foreign language is, I am extremely proud of my beginner students at Instituto Estelar Bilingüe as they finish their first level this week. As is to be expected, they have lost a few classmates along the way, but they haven’t given up.

Leda, Alexandra, and Margarita learning about clothes in the beginner class.

I would like to showcase two more pieces of writing by two women who have worked especially hard to get to this point, Leda Campos Guerrero and Alexandra Peña Guido, both in their thirties and in my beginner class on Saturday mornings. Learning English does not come easy to them, and they could have easily given up, but they are fighters.

Leda’s Dialogue:

Carmen: Hi, my name is Carmen.

Maria: Hello. My name is Maria.

Carmen: It’s nice to meet you, Maria.

Maria: Nice to meet you too.

Carmen: Where do you work Maria?

Maria: I work in the restaurant.

Carmen: What are you doing? Are you a waitress?

Maria: No, I’m not. I’m a cook. And you, Carmen? What is your work?

Carmen: I’m not working. I’m a student.

Maria: Where are you from, Carmen?

Carmen: I’m from San Jose. And you?

Maria: I’m from Puntarenas.

Carmen: Do you like to swim, Maria?

Maria: Yes, I like to swim in the beach. And you?

Carmen: No, I don’t. I like to dance. Where is the restaurant?

Maria: It’s next to the hospital.

Carmen: Okay, bye Maria!

Maria: Bye. See you, Carmen!

Alexandra’s Dialogue:

Thalia: Hi!

Tiger Woods: Hello, what’s your name?

Thalia: My name is Thalia. And you?

Tiger: I’m Tiger Woods. What do you do?

Thalia: I am a singer. And you?

Tiger: I work to play golf.

Thalia: Where do you live?

Tiger: I live in the U.S., and you?

Thalia: I’m from Mexico. Are you married?

Tiger: Yes, and you?

Thalia: Yeah. Do you have kids?

Tiger: Yes, and you?

Thalia: Yes, I have a daughter and am expecting my second child. I think they’re calling my flight. I have to go. It was a pleasure to meet you.

Tiger: Me too. I love to meet you. Bye.


One response to “Starting from Zero

  1. Bethany,
    what a wonderful testimony! You must be so encouraged that your students are learning by having fun with English. I love the way you are using practical, real life (well, sort of) conversations to teach grammar and spelling, etc. Good job, teaacher! Also, as a student you should be proud that your Dr. said your Spanish is perfect! 🙂

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