“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.