“Me da vergüenza.”



My students are embarrassed to speak English to me.

This, you see, is my biggest hindrance in the classroom. Not classrooms stuck in the twentieth century, not time, not a lack of ability, not English teachers with abysmal English skills…nope. It’s their reluctance to speak aloud in English. Reading aloud is also considered as a path to public humiliation. I used to ask myself why, especially after particularly silent classroom sessions. Was it me? Do I intimidate them? For some reason, I don’t think so. After all, they often call my name in the hallways (“Kelly! Hola Kelly!”) and wave to me as I walk down the street. It’s not me; it’s them. (Forgive me for sounding like I’m breaking up with them.)

In the U.S., for the most part, we are not self-conscious, at least not cripplingly so. We are outrageous and proud of it. (Just look at some common Internet memes if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) When I was learning Spanish, we loved writing dialogues and performing them in front of the class. Doing videos was yet another treat. We would go to one of our houses and invent a ridiculous situation and talk about in (most likely) appalling Spanish. It didn’t matter. We weren’t ashamed. In the U.S., we don’t mind acting silly because everyone likes us the same, if not more. After all, the class clown is usually popular for a reason.

Here, it’s the opposite. The children will do anything to keep their classmates from laughing at them. If they mess up, the students immediately begin to laugh. “It’s fly, not FLEE!” they giggle, correcting a classmate’s pronunciation, even if they too would make the same mistake in a similar situation. When I correct a student, I can see them visibly flush, as though I’d told them they were completely stupid. Mario tells me it’s the fear of ¿Qué dirán? (What will they say?) And while I can understand that to some extent, it doesn’t stop it from frustrating me. Greatly.

The irony of the whole state of affairs is that grades are often read aloud in front of the class and teachers don’t mind telling students how horribly they performed on the last test. The secret to surviving: you must pretend it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t get to you. So what if you got a 45%? You obviously don’t care about such silly things as school. Please.

I admit it; it makes me angry. First of all, to learn a language, you have to talk. You can learn the grammar by rote memorization, but speaking and listening is fluid and language is constantly changing. It’s never the same from one moment to the next and you must light on your proverbial feet, ready to adapt in order to fully integrate into the language’s world. So this shame stuff? It’s arguably the biggest barrier a Spanish student will face. Alas, I don’t imagine I’m going to be able to do away with it by myself. The shame environment starts young and continues all through high school and even into the university years. They may leave the classroom, but the shame doesn’t leave them. Several of Mario’s friends refuse to talk to me in English. Why? They’re embarrassed of their skills (or perhaps lack thereof). I, however, unabashedly speak day in and day out in imperfect, albeit proficient, Spanish. I make mistakes all the time. I get corrected by loads of people, including a cashier at the supermarket. Mario probably corrects me at least 30 times daily, and that’s not counting the times I ask him the meaning or the proper use of a word immediately after I’ve uttered it. The question is, so what? Who cares? That’s how you learn. I admit, I wish my Spanish were perfect, but that’s not realistic and perfection shouldn’t be any language speaker’s goal. (Honestly, I don’t even speak English perfectly. And well know English is the easiest language there is!) It’s taken a lot of guts to speak Spanish in front of my students because, well, they’re teenagers and not always kind. They’ve laughed at my accent before because I don’t have the sharp, clear vowel pronunciation that they do. The word “foto,” for instance, sounds to them like “fooooutoooou” in my American accent. But it’s made me stronger and, perhaps more importantly, less ashamed.

After all, if I can hack it in front of the harshest audience there is, Spanish teens, then I can do it anywhere.

6 thoughts on “Embarrassed

  1. Your blog entry depicts perfectly one of the main reasons why the average Spaniard can’t speak a foreign language. We are so afraid of what other people may say. You can actually see this in every single aspect of daily life, such as, people’s clothes or the cars (so many Audis, BMW, Mercedes to keep up with the Joneses). Making a fool of oneself is one of the worst things it may happen. This also reflects on the low levels of entrepreneurship in Spain.
    The other problem relies on the education system, since we are taught grammar,more grammar and… some more grammar. So when Spaniards first go abroad and tries to say something in English, they try to use grammar so perfect that they end up saying nothing.
    I really hope this changes, although I would say that the cultural aspect is very strong so we have to fight this fear back individually.

  2. So true! I have found that the younger levels are more eager to speak, but I constantly have to tell my kids not to make fun of their classmates when they make a mistake. I also have to constantly tell them that I don’t care what they say as long as they say something!

    If you want to find Spanish teens willing to speak English, go to the supermarket around 8 on Saturday night. No shame when it comes to asking someone to buy alcohol for them!

    1. Haha, Liz!!

      Kaley… this is so accurate! Glad you did a post on this. I know I have at least two friends who I’m pretty sure secretly speak perfect English.

      But the flip-side of being embarrassed about pronouncing things wrong in class is: most students don’t want to pronounce things too right, either. I think it’s the same there as in American schools sometimes: being “too good” at a foreign language shows you care a little too much about school. Phew… exhausting being a teenager!

  3. In France, I feel like the students are told they can’t speak English by their teachers, and are super shocked when I compliment them on their English skills!

    Most of my students will laugh at each other when they make pronunciation mistakes, but not enough to inhibit people from participating (although I don’t really give them a choice in the matter). But the negative feedback they get from their professors really inhibits them in the beginning, as they have this image of themselves as unable to utter a single sentence in English.

    Down with the European school systems!

    1. I agree! The teachers here are sometimes really mean to the kids, especially if they don’t know the answer right away. I always try to compliment them if I can at least understand what they’re saying. And telling them I feel the same way when I speak Spanish. Hopefully it boosts their confidence!

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