Nervousness and excitement competed for prominence in my mind as I arrived for my first day of classes. The school, in the small town of Chicxulub in Mexico, had an open-air courtyard with classrooms around the perimeter. It was nothing like the modern schools we have in Canada.
I waited outside for a few minutes and entered together with my fellow teaching volunteers. The crowded room was set up with six tables. Each could seat four students and two teachers.
Before the children arrived, we spent thirty minutes getting acquainted, reviewing the lesson plan and distributing supplies for the day.
The students were led from their regular classroom into our room. They entered to our greeting of, “Good Afternoon” and chose where they wanted to sit. Of the 28 registered in the class, only 17 were present that day; 5 boys and 12 girls. This number varied from week to week and we never had a full class.
The first task was for the students to make nametags. They wrote, I am and their name on a card that was placed in a lanyard around their necks. Along with the students and other teachers I stood in turn, held up my nametag and said, “I am Tandy.” This was our first lesson and the way each class would start.
The children were polite and extremely reserved. It was a challenge to get them to speak loudly enough to be heard. Over the next two months, this shyness persisted for most of them.
Each component of the lesson plan was explained in English and Spanish from the front of the room. Some phrases were written on a white board so they could be referred to.
Then we would work with the students at our table to help them learn necessary words in this foreign language. Over the weeks we taught them through the use of flash cards with words and pictures. They learned: I am, I have, I want and I need. As we added: I am not, I do not have, I do not want and I do not need they were able to form simple sentences with the flash cards. Colours, people, animals and simple objects were incorporated into these sentences. To understand the correct meaning of the words and sentences they formed was quite an accomplishment.
Numbers were also taught. They knew the numerals, but the English words for them proved difficult. We played games to make it enjoyable. In some cases, like when we played Snakes and Ladders, they were having so much fun, it didn’t seem like learning!
Our hour-long classes passed quickly. Each week, the happy students would line up, a table at a time to leave the classroom. They were handed a simple snack and would say, “Thank you” to which a reply of, “You are welcome” was given. As well as a treat, this provided another opportunity to practice English words.
After two months we came to our last class. These students were in grade 6 and this is the final mandatory year for attending school. Most would not continue their education. We were in an economically challenged area and families could not afford to keep their children in school. We hoped the little we’d been able to teach them would be of benefit to them in the future.
As the class ended, the children surprised each teacher with handmade cards of thanks. Some even contained a few of the English phrases learned. I received my cards and hugs of thanks with tears of gratitude. The opportunity to have been part of this important program was a highlight of my time in Mexico. I look forward to returning to volunteer again next year.
For just over two years I’ve been studying Spanish on a language app. Every day I spend time doing lessons. After 832 days, I’ve learned a lot of words but still can’t hold a simple conversation in Spanish.
Many of the lessons give me multiple choices for the answers. The words are provided and I either have to chose the one or two correct ones to complete a sentence or translate an English sentence with some of the words provided. This is much easier for me than having to translate a sentence from English to Spanish as I don’t have to come up with the words from memory.
In my frustration one day, I blurted out, “This isn’t working for me anymore. I won’t have simple multiple choices in front of me when I want to speak. Life doesn’t work that way.”
My words caused a lightbulb moment! Life is not effectively lived in a multiple-choice scenario. Why then, do I look for a short list of solutions to choose from when I have a decision to make? It’s even better if someone else can give me answers that make no sense and one that’s clearly correct.
While this may initially sound like a good idea, it is in the trying, failing and figuring things out for myself that I will become fluent. In other words, I need to immerse myself in the process of living.
In learning a language, and in life, I must challenge myself to move into the unknown. It is comfortable to take the easy route, rely on tried-and-true options and congratulate myself on what I have already accomplished. This won’t get me to where I want to be.
There will be mistakes and times of frustration, but each will move me one step closer to success. No more multiple choice, it’s time to get fully immersed.
At the time of this writing, I’ve been doing an online, self-paced Spanish course for 270 days.
In order to move to the next level of learning I have to reach a certain ranking for the week. Sometimes it takes a few weeks to score enough points to move ahead. Too few points and I could be demoted to the previous level.
A few times I didn’t put in enough effort and barely maintained my standing. This bothered me so I now strive to remain in the top twelve.
Last week I checked my score and discovered I was in first place! It was only day one of the week so, while excited, I knew it might not last. The next morning, I had dropped to second place so spent a little longer online and regained my standing.
This is the way it continued for several days. My competitive nature had me spending more and more time each day. Sometimes I went online a second time to check my score and do another quick lesson. I wanted to finish the week as number one and get the virtual rewards that position offered.
With less than two days to go, someone surpassed me by so many points I would have to spend about three hours each day rather than my daily one hour. If I did this there was a good possibility I could win!
The voice of reason asked me what the cost would be. Time with my husband would pay the price, as would many other pleasures.
As if that weren’t bad enough, when I race through lessons, more intent on gathering points than learning, my retention diminishes. Foolish mistakes are made. Was the intent to learn the language or to come first in this level?
I listened to reason. That left time to bake muffins, go for a walk with my husband, email a childhood friend and work on a writing project. Although I didn’t finish in first place, what I spent my time on definitely made me a winner.
My friend’s baby is learning to walk. She started by pulling herself up on a piece of furniture and moving down the length of it. Having the furniture for support helped her gain confidence.
Holding onto mom’s fingers was another way to walk from one spot to another. One day the time came for her to take a step without holding onto anything for support. This was risky and took a lot of coaxing. After a tentative step forward, she fell. The look of surprise on her face could have easily been followed by tears and a refusal to try again.
Instead, mom quickly scooped her up, praised the effort and stood her on wobbly legs again. Encouragement and cheers followed with every step and every fall. Before long the steps were more frequent than the falls. It won’t be long before she is ready to move from walking to running.
The same principle holds true for us. We expect to take off running when we start something new. This is unrealistic and leads to frustration and discouragement. There are times when the falls are so frequent I wonder if I should give up.
Past experience has taught me I learn best when I take baby steps and celebrate each small success. When I attempt to master new skills the support and encouragement of others can help me get back on my feet and take a few more steps forward.
This may be repeated many times before I can move quickly and confidently in this new area. When it feels like I’m not moving fast enough I remind myself that baby steps will get me farther than if I didn’t take any steps at all.