Running Off On a Tangent

ACANS News & Information Center

Running Off On a Tangent

The focus of this article is technology and language acquisition. It is a first-hand account of my experience studying Spanish in Zacatecas, Mexico this summer. When asked to write this article, my immediate response was, “These two terms do not belong in the same sentence.”  I am aware of the various software programs and websites designed to help people acquire a language that is not their own, but I did not choose this route; I chose an immersion program. I studied at the Fenix Language Institute for 12 weeks this summer.  This article is an insider’s perspective of what it is like to be introduced to a new language in a new country, without the potential benefits of technology. This is my story of my introduction to language acquisition.

I am a Mexican “white” girl from Tennessee.  My parents are Mexican.  They were born and raised in New Mexico and Texas.  Their first language is Spanish.   My mother joined the Air Force upon graduating from high school and left her home in the Hondo Valley of New Mexico. She never returned.  My father joined the U.S. Navy at age 16, and like my mother, he never returned to his childhood home in Alpine Texas.  My father was career military, and though he came and went, my home is Clarksville, Tennessee.  I was born and raised in a military culture, and that culture’s first language is English.

Image of ...The Fenix Language Institute is located in Zactecas, Mexico.

Currently, I am a graduate student in English.  One of the requirements for my degree is a language.  In order to meet the requirements of my degree, I went to Mexico to study.  For 12 weeks this summer, I studied Spanish at the Fenix Language Institute in Zacatecas.  I’m not sure what I was thinking when I decided to undertake this venture, but whatever it was, the reality has been quite different from the vacation I had envisioned.  Maybe I thought language acquisition would be a quick trip to an exotic city, and that I could wander around picking up words here and there.  Maybe I thought that if I listened carefully, paid attention, and worked hard to be a good student, that when I felt comfortable enough to open my mouth, flawless Spanish would flow.  Maybe I thought it would like a quick trip to Pic Quik, and I could run in, grab what I needed, run out, and be thankful for the convenience of convenience stores.

That was not my experience.  I was one of less than a handful of students who arrived at the Fenix Language Institute with no Spanish.  Almost all the students who arrived at the institute had a minimum of one year college Spanish, and unlike me, they were not afraid to stumble over the language in the pursuit of furthering their language acquisition and comprehension.  From the moment I walked onto the institute’s grounds, I was intimidated.  Granted, I am an introvert, and I censor myself in all aspects of my being, but before I began this adventure, I had told myself, “I won’t know anyone there, I’ll never see them again; I can therefore go in and make a fool of myself.”  I could not do it. 

No Entiendo (I Don’t Understand)

Image of ...NMSU students Nicolette Roybal, Jesus Sanchez, Stacey Lish, and Lindy Lovato, from left, were among those who studied at the Fenix Language Institute in Zacatecas, Mexico this summer.

Upon arriving at Fenix Language Institute, students are given a placement

test.  Once their Spanish proficiency has been determined they are placed in

the appropriate class.  I didn’t take a placement test, at least not the written test the other students took.  Instead, Fenix’s founder and director Arturo Dorado worked one-on-one with me to determine if I had an aptitude for language acquisition.  Once it was determined the situation wasn’t hopeless, I was placed in a class with four other students.  We began by reading Cinderella in Spanish.  Unlike me, my fellow classmates had studied Spanish and they spoke and understood the language.  They were able to read and understand the story.  I was not.  I lacked the foundation for such comprehension, and right off the bat, I felt inadequate.  To make matter worse, I was twice as old as these students, and I am Mexican. 

I found language acquisition to be one of the most intimidating experiences I

have ever undertaken.  It was exhausting.  It was very hard work.  It was

frustrating.  And it was an extremely slow process.  In my final week of classes, I was still struggling in my effort to put together a simple sentence.  And when I finally uttered the words, I stumbled over them.   

I’m Not Who You Think I Am

There are certain assumptions that are made of a Mexican in Mexico.  One is, this person speaks and understand the language.  It is not true, but everywhere I went, this assumption was made of me.  People took one look at me, and proceeded to speak to me in a language I did not understand.  I don’t know who was more disappointed in this fact, them or me. 

This experience in many ways reminds me of my life among technology

specialists. As a writer and photographer, I am often thought to possess the technological savvy required to run a supercomputer or make my words or pictures public via the World Wide Web. But this too is not true. In this domain, as the one in Zacatecas, I am just a visitor to the space.

So where do these experiences—with language acquisition, with technology acquisition—leave me? Should I stay put in my comfort zone? Should I venture out into territories that remind me all too often that I have much to learn and that learning is a commitment that requires reaching beyond my grasp? Learning is also an investment, one that has introduced me to places and possibilities that I could never have envisioned, places such as the very old and beautiful city of Zacatecas and our own technology labs on campus.  I know that learning is facilitated in many ways, but at its root, it is communication.   And in today’s world the channels of communication are vast.  The teacher/student relationship of learning Spanish without the benefit of technology is one mode of communication; other channels of communication include Instant Messaging, blogging, videoconferencing, and multimedia presentations.  Regardless of how information is shared, it embraces some of the things dear to me: people, words, sounds, music, colors, and movement.

Limited Access

The program I attended this summer did not use technology as a teaching

tool.  At any given time, the student population fluctuated between 25 and 40 students, and though that does not seem like a large number, it is too many when everyone wanted computer time on one of the two computers available for student use.  As I and others found out, our options were further limited when we realized that one of the two computers did not possess the required technology needed for us to access our email.  My host family’s home, as is true of most homes in Zacatecas, did not have a computer.

New students acclimate l to the environment without too much difficulty, but adapting means compromising, and one of the biggest compromises is how to maneuver in technology deprived environment.  As I learned my way around the city, I noted the locations of Internet Cafes, and for a while these places became my home away from home.

Image of ...Arturo Dorado, founder and director of the Fenix Language Institute in Zacatecas, Mexico, leads a class discussion.

I thought, I have to check my email, I have to surf the Internet, and I have to have access to the world beyond Zacatecas.  But after a while, I learned that all these necessities were really luxuries.  I learned that in order to survive in my new environment, I needed to slow my pace. 

And indeed the pace of life is slower in Zactaces.  The afternoon siesta isn’t just a myth.  After a grueling five hours of Spanish classes everyday, I and every other person in Zacatecas went home for the main meal of the day.  From about 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., the city closes down so that we may enjoy our meal and relieve ourselves of the day’s stress. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, and that if I wanted to enjoy my adventure to the fullest, I needed to change expectations.  I didn’t really need to check my email four times a day.  And who did I think I was going to call in Zacatecas, and even if I did call this someone, how did I think I was going to talk to them.  I didn’t really need my cell phone.  I decided a calling card would work just fine.  I haven’t really watched TV in two years, so the fact that there wasn’t a TV didn’t bother me too much.  And the accommodations, in regard to room and board, were just fine.  I didn’t need a lot.  I needed a bed, a bath, and place that I could close the door and call my own.  I had it, and it was enough. 

All-in-all, it was truly an amazing experience.  Zacatecas is a beautiful city, and the people are gracious.   But if I were to pack my suitcase again, I would pack music, books, a camera, and good walking shoes. 

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