Many days I leave work as an English teacher in Japan wanting to hold a reasoning with my high school Spanish teacher. In a reasoning, you ask your partner searching questions, listen to their honest answers and opinions, and you yourself are equally frank and open.
I really want to reason with Senorita Blake on many things like the taste of words in a foreign language, when she first got interested in Spanish, her experiences in Spanish speaking countries, her favorite Spanish words, and so on.
But most of all, I really want my high school Spanish teacher to tell me how exactly she got through every class teaching a language to students who just didn’t understand that they were being taught a language.
How come you didn’t tell me to try tasting the words? I might ask her. To become so intimate with this language so much so that I could decide by taste that I didn’t like some words. Like I just don’t like the taste of the word ‘boob’ in English, so I don’t use it.
Maybe she would tell me that she did tell us those things, that I just don’t remember. And she would probably be right. In Spanish class, all kinds of tastes were on my lips– patty, or bun and cheese or rice and kidney for dinner that evening. Many things, but not Spanish.
What was Spanish? Spanish was the subject I chose instead of geography. Spanish was something my dear friend was good at, but I wasn’t. Spanish class time was a time I felt lost. Spanish was songs or performances in Spanish by bright students at school events. Spanish was a thing. It was many things, but it wasn’t a language. It was not something used by people somewhere to organize their lives. It was not something actually used for communication. It was like a code. A code that if I could decipher I would get high marks on the CXC exam. Like Maths.
Now, I live in a country where I’ve mastered daily conversation in the language. In Japanese, I can order my food, tell the doctor what’s wrong with me, buy sugar instead of salt. It often feels like a bothersome set of rules and patterns, but it’s not as indecipherable as I saw Spanish, and I don’t associate it with Maths. Most days. The obvious difference with this situation and my Spanish class is that here, I am immersed. The people around me speak the language I am aiming to speak.
But it’s neither my fault nor Senorita Blake’s that I never actually met and spoke with Spanish speakers all the five years I studied Spanish. Or that I was never in a setting where Spanish was the only or primary means of communication. That didn’t even occur to me as a possibility. Because, like I said, I didn’t even know I was studying a language.
How Senorita Blake must have felt like she was on a failing mission sometimes. Or perhaps it was enough for her to be able to use a language she loved every day. Of course, all students weren’t like me. For some, Spanish was Spanish, not Maths. Its sounds were musical, its rules logical, its patterns predictable, and where they were not, caramba, that was exciting, not frustrating. Maybe those students went on to meet Spanish speakers in their lives.
As I eventually did meet one Spanish speaker, who was my second Spanish teacher. He was from Cuba. One of the benefits of my teaching job at the time was that you could enroll in one course per semester. I chose a beginner Spanish course.
Well this time, fear was worse than anything. Fear of speaking up in class. I felt that what I said would sound completely wrong to this native speaker. Plus by that time, I had already lived in Japan for a bit, and all the foreign language signals sent to my brain were Japanese. So a lot of Japanese came out in the Spanish class. Now Spanish was like Japanese. Again, I’m sure not all students were like me. But I think for a good number of them, for whom it was a compulsory course, Spanish was like Maths. But I was in that class with the understanding, finally, that Spanish was a language. However, I still had no practical setting in which to try using the language.
Similarly, my students don’t use English outside of class, unless they are super motivated and have some goal they want to achieve like studying abroad. But some might go on to work in jobs that require them to use English. Some might end up with friends or even family from English speaking countries. Some will eventually find relevance for all this English.
The contexts are different, but there is also a lack of practical opportunities for people to use Spanish or French, the two main languages taught in Jamaican schools. I would ask Senorita Blake what she thinks of this. Outside of becoming a Spanish teacher, what other jobs are there where you can use Spanish in Jamaica? A smattering, maybe. In a previous job, I was asked once in the two years I was there to read an e-mail in Spanish. I have one friend who uses Spanish in his job. Spanish he learnt while studying in Cuba. Or maybe you can become a teacher of teachers, like Senorita Blake did.
Of the hundreds of thousands of students who study Spanish and French each year, how many will go on to become Spanish or French teachers? And is the sole purpose of (language) study preparing one for a job? I don’t think so. But when it comes to practicality, that’s the low hanging fruit.
Of the hundreds of students I have taught and will teach, how many will ever meet another English speaker? How many will actually use English to communicate outside of a classroom? Of course English is different from Spanish in global use and Jamaica is not Japan.