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Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Spanish Teacher Opening Eyes and Hearts to the World

 

We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success… 

Meet Linda Egnatz, the 2014 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year. Long fascinated by other cultures, she wasn’t able to enroll in a language course until college—but then, during a J-term trip to Spain, everything changed! 

ASK AWAY Linda

1. Can you tell us about your own first experience with language or cultural immersion? 

“Konnichiwa”—”Hello” in Japanese—was the first phrase I learned in another language. 

My Dad was Air Force, and at age four, our family moved to Japan where I began school.  I remember feeling like a princess wearing my pink silk kimono while drinking green tea from china cups on Girl’s Day.  Just as vivid, and in sharp contrast, is a memory of visiting an orphanage with my parents and seeing long tables lined with children my age eating rice from small wooden bowls.  Because we lived on base, I learned only a few Japanese phrases, but I found the culture fascinating.  

Sadly, none one of the three high schools I attended in the 1970s offered world language classes.  Today, I delight in sharing with my high school students that they are already ahead of me in their language journey. My first opportunity to take a language came as a college freshman in Spanish 101.  

Speaking another language for the first time was exciting; I felt empowered!

When I learned that there was a trip to Spain offered during the 3 week January term, I took on extra work hours to enroll.  I was a novice speaker, with just one semester of Spanish, but I chose to maximize my opportunity by initiating conversations with anyone willing.  Language Education was not my intended major; it was an unexpected discovery I made on the narrow, white-washed streets of Andalucia.

2. We know that learning a language takes us out of our comfort zone! Is there an obstacle you overcame along the way that you’d like to share with us?

My biggest obstacle was that I came to language learning late—almost as an adult.  I am not a heritage speaker, nor do I live in a Hispanic community.  To accelerate my learning, I had to take every opportunity possible to practice and I chose to do that through travel.  On a teacher’s salary that may be difficult, but it is possible.  I apply for grants and scholarships—for conferences, for travel programs and for study abroad programs.  Surprisingly few people apply, so the chances are actually quite good that you may be selected.  I travel with students each year and as the group leader, my travel as well as that of my chaperones is covered. 

Language is dynamic: Vocabulary that was popular when I was in college is no longer in vogue.  I also travel to places where I don’t understand the language and take classes in other languages.  It’s important to empathize with your students.  When was the last time you were in a place where you had no idea what was being said around you?  When was the last time you had to infer meaning or grasp at visual clues for meaning?    

 3. How have you helped your own students get out of their comfort zones to become more “comfortable with the uncomfortable”? What has been their reaction?

My first goal is to make the classroom a safe environment in which to make mistakes. I want to foster a familial learning environment in which students are comfortable going through the journey together.

I use collaborative seating and change seating groups every month.  Within a short time, students have worked with everyone in the class.  We do some peer coaching and modeling: What was great?  What could make this performance better? I have students stand in place whenever they speak or contribute (it becomes less a response to me than a performance for the group as they gain everyone’s attention, and often applause) and rather than call on volunteers, I use popsicle sticks so everyone is expected to be prepared. 

These changes have created a much more interactive classroom atmosphere and risk-taking, as well as communal support, has increased. 

4. What’s the very best thing about being a language educator?

I love teaching a subject that opens up all that makes us human.

The language classroom is first, and foremost, a place of communication.  We learn more about our students and their lives than other teachers (family, homes, activities, dreams).  We have an opportunity to know them as individuals.  We open our students’ eyes and hearts to the world, to its diversity, to its beauty, and to its challenges.  We begin with teaching respect for each other in our classroom and expand globally. 

Language is how we live and work. I have the unique privilege of teaching every subject—be it history, literature, science or art—just in L2, as I coach students who I hope will have the opportunity to use the language I teach alongside of the subject they love in the workplace.  

My lessons are only limited by time and imagination.  Annual spring break trips allow me to break students out of classroom walls and give them real interpersonal experiences with native speakers.  Not only do they affirm their skills, but exposing them to exotic people and places they would otherwise only see in books (or on the Internet) opens their minds up to possibilities and their own potential. 

Finally, I’m humbled to hear from former students and learn that in some small way, I made an impact on their lives.  They make me proud.

5. What advice would you give to students who are thinking about becoming language teachers?

DO IT!  We need language teachers more than ever.  As you prepare, look for your own real world opportunities to use your language and strengthen your own language skills—travel, volunteer, make L2 friends—connect through social media if not face-to-face. 

Once you enter the classroom, keep growing your language skills and get professionally active.  Join your state language or language-specific organization and volunteer.  You’ll gain incredible professional mentors and relationships that will serve you throughout your career.

 Bonus Question: Is there a Spanish word or expression that is particularly meaningful to you—and why?

I have always found the Spanish language to be more expressive and precise than English.  (That may explain my Masters in Spanish Literature.)  One phrase that has helped me, and my students, is the subtle change from English to Spanish of the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.”  In Spanish, it’s “La práctica hace el maestro”—which is to suggest that “perfection” isn’t necessarily a valid goal or expectation. 

I had to let go of that red pen as I began to understand how a novice uses perfectly memorized phrases while the intermediate when creating language makes errors, but is advancing.  If I continued to insist on perfection and did not encourage risk, my students would never become proficient language users.

 So, when was the last time a language or cultural experience brought you out of your comfort zone?  Has a language teacher inspired you to leap into the unknown, or have you considered being a teacher who will inspire the next generation to speak another language with empathy and confidence?  

Join the conversation @LeadWLanguages on social media! And like Linda’s students, and others around the country working toward earning the Seal of Biliteracy, be #2bilit2quit