Ecuador – Language as a Box and a Bridge – English Class – by Abigail Blonigen. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

Ecuador – Language as a Box and a Bridge – English Class – by Abigail Blonigen. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

[https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/86/Ecuador_Topography.png]


To state the obvious, learning a second language is extremely difficult. Though, after a few weeks in a Spanish speaking country, I am fortunate that English was my first language. My host parents as well as others have asked me questions about weird little words or irregulars in English, and even as an English major, I couldn’t really answer them. Not only is it a difficult language to learn, but being a native English speaker is a tremendous privilege. Anywhere I go, I will more likely than not be able to find someone who I can communicate with. I’ll be catered to with subtitles, signs, labels, and bars whose entire menus are in English. Fair or not, there is an air of power about it.

Today we went to an English class at a university. Because it was at a university, we expected it to be a class of students about our age. We were wrong. It was a class of professors learning English. I was intimidated. How is it my place to teach someone so much more intelligent than me? The professors all excitedly said “hello” and “nice to meet you” when we arrived. We spent the first half of class speaking in English, and the second half in Spanish. They were only a few weeks into their course, so my partner’s level was pretty low, and I could tell he was very nervous. I was surprised that an accomplished 54 year old retired policeman who is now a professor of mathematics and statistics was nervous to talk to me.

It was a humbling experience. We had very basic conversations about our families, pets, travel, the weather, and what we like and dislike. He paused a lot to think, asked me to repeat myself, and sometimes had that look where I knew he didn’t know exactly what I was saying. Sometimes I had to ask him to repeat himself or peek at his English book because his accent made it difficult for me to understand. Occasionally he asked me for clarification in Spanish. I could tell he felt embarrassed about it, but he didn’t need to be, as I am going through the exact same thing every day. It’s extremely frustrating being limited by a language you cannot entirely speak. I’m a relatively intelligent person, but I do not yet have the capacity to fully express my thoughts and feelings in this new language. This man was very intelligent, but all we could talk about was what our family members do for a living. It’s tough. It’s as if you can physically feel the language barrier in your mind.

Once we ran out of things to talk about, he started looking at his watch to see when we could switch to Spanish. Once we switched, he told me all of the things he understood. He got the gist of everything I said, and had a tremendous memory too. He started to show me pictures and talk about his travels, and I could relate to the sense of relief with reverting back to your own tongue. It turns out he has a daughter named Abigail who is 20 years old and has blue eyes, exactly like me. I asked him why he’s learning English, and he said it’s a personal challenge. He also wants to travel to Europe and the U.S., and thinks English is a useful tool to have in general.

Language is like a box. We have our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but we can only share with others the words we have in our box. It’s difficult being a thoughtful person with a box so small. I felt all of my partner’s embarrassment, frustration, and nervousness. Though we couldn’t say everything we wanted to say, sharing this vulnerable experience created a sense of togetherness you don’t need words to understand.

Abigail Blonigen serves as an assistant editor for The North Star Reports

Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu

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The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy (http://NorthStarReports.org) is a student edited and student authored open access publication centered around the themes of global and historical connections. Our guiding philosophy is that those of us who are fortunate enough to receive an education and to travel our planet are ethically bound to share our knowledge with those who cannot afford to do so. Therefore, creating virtual and actual communities of learning between college and K-12 classes are integral to our mission. In five years we have published over 300 articles covering all habitable continents and a variety of topics ranging from history and politics, food and popular culture, to global inequities to complex identities. These articles are read by K-12 and college students. Our volunteer student editors and writers come from Nursing to Biology, Physical Therapy to Business, and remarkably, many of our student editors and writers have long graduated from college. We also have writers and editors from other colleges and universities. In addition to our main site, we also curate a Facebook page dedicated to annotated news articles selected by our student editors (http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports). We have an all volunteer staff. The North Star Reports is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang and NSR Student Editors and Writers. For a brief summary of our history, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at: http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2013/1305/Opening-The-Middle-Ground-Journal.cfm

Professor Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports. Ellie Swanson and Marin Ekstrom, Assistant Managing Editors, The North Star Reports.

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu

27 Comments

Filed under Abigail Blonigen, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

27 responses to “Ecuador – Language as a Box and a Bridge – English Class – by Abigail Blonigen. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

    • DyAnna Grondahl

      Abigail,
      This was a delightful read. I must admit I was amused at the thought of an ex-cop professor being intimidated by you. While I read this, I thought of the frustration and guilt I felt in my German courses at Scholastica. That feeling of “I know I should know what you are saying, but I don’t” is something that I think most people might feel when they are learning a second language.

      I really appreciate your description of the power that English as a first language holds. It is interesting to think about, because when engage in small talk we don’t even have to think about what we are saying, but when we are trying to do that same thing in a different language, it can be the most grueling task out there. My brother and his wife have been married for a few years now, but when they started seeing each other they couldn’t really communicate with each other effectively. She spoke Spanish and not a word of English. He spoke English and not a word of Spanish. By the first time I met them as a couple, they were speaking to each other in both languages, interchanging them as they pleased. How does one reach that level of linguistic skill? When do we finally cross over from the strenuous practice of grammar and vocabulary to the seemingly effortless exchange of natural conversation?

      Thank you

    • Reid Peterson

      Abigail, thank you for such an interesting report on languages as a box and a bridge. In high school, I think all of us can attest that many great memories that occurred in a foreign language class: Spanish, French, and/or German. I can completely connect with what you have commented on language being such an important cultural bridge. I took French in high school which was a life changing experience for me. I was able to find culture and immerse myself in our classroom by listening to music and partaking in French cuisine. Though our French wasn’t perfect and we didn’t get it all right away, I think learning another language helps oneself learn their own language and culture even more. Languages help us experience life through a different perspective to help us grow in our own character.

    • Katrina Lund

      Abigail,
      I enjoyed this article very much, particularly your description of how us humans are limited in our expression by the language we speak. I am very intrigued by this and how words exist in one language and not in another. Humans have such intense and unique feelings it seems silly to have limits on how we can articulate them. Being a native english speaker is a tremendous advantage as you said, but I believe our education system is doing all young Americans an injustice by having english the only language taught to them until high school in most cases. Broadening a child’s linguistic horizons early on would be such a wonderful idea, and something I wish would have been offered to me as a kid.

  1. Dylan Brovick

    Abigail,
    Your article made me think of white privilege or male privilege but never before had i thought about the privilege of being able to speak English. It seems rather odd to think about hear in America since I was told since high school to learn a different language such as Spanish because it would be important and a good skill to have in the future. I suppose in Spanish speaking countries or other countries around the world they may be told to learn a different language and English would make sense as an important one to learn. Like you said learning a language is very difficult and something I struggled to do in high school. Even though I took three years of Spanish in high school I never got to use the language a large amount and now could not speak more then a few sentences in Spanish, and it probably is filled with errors. Like the man you mentioned in your story I do hope to learn another language after college as a personal challenge to myself and because of how important communication is with other people in the globalized world.

  2. Alexandra Erickson

    Abigail,
    I loved how you explained how you could literally feel the language barrier in your mind. I find it fascinating how many other ways there are to communicate despite just verbal language alone. Body language alone has such an impact on how we understand each other, and I am sure you experienced that with your language partner. You pick up so much more communicating in person with someone who’s language you are trying to learn versus online, because in person you can witness their facial movements, the look in the eyes, and their stance. I have never thought before how frustrating it would be not to be able to speak your thoughts due to the limits of a language and available speakers. I am a rather chatty person by nature, so I am not sure how I would react in that situation. Thanks for sharing!

  3. william Brennhofer

    Abby,
    The line that stood out to me was when you talked about how the 54 year old professor was nervous to talk to you. I agree with you, i would not know how to feel about that. Considering that i, myself, are extremely nervous when i talk to knew people, let alone someone in their native language. I like how you compare language to that of a box, because it feels really fitting. When i was in Paris, it was hard for me to, because so many people there could speak good English or at least wanted to try to speak it with me, and i was not good enough at french, so they would choose to speak in English instead of listening to me butcher their language.

    Thanks for sharing!!

  4. Cassandra Mahlberg

    Abby, it is so interesting to read about the privilege of speaking English. I have noticed and taken into account my ability to go places across borders and be able to find someone who knows enough English to help me with my needs. I have even avoided places where I know that the people don’t know any English based on information given to me by others who have traveled. The amount of English spoken globally, while tremendously helpful, can also be incredibly detrimental to peoples’ cultures because of the ties between culture, ideology, and language. Sometimes, although it is a privilege to speak English, I wish that we would have to try harder to understand other languages. Learning language in America is vastly different than in Europe because the isolation allows us to be egocentric and not hold concern for non-English speakers. It is common for people in Europe to speak 3 languages (typically English is one of the three) and be able to communicate cross-culturally with ease (which is certainly more essential in such a small land mass with so much diversity, but not inessential here anyway). With hopes for a more humanly connected globalization than we have now (I’d say the current system is commodity-centralized with little cultural consideration), we should encourage and better strive to learn other languages. As you said, even without words we can still feel together, but common language is still helpful.

  5. Ellery Bruns

    Abigail,
    Your article is spot on. I related to how it is frustrating to not be able to communicate all that you want in a new language. I am in third-year Russian student, but I still have trouble communicating what I am trying to say. It is humbling like you said, and this learning process has given me a greater respect for people who are not native English speakers than I already had. Now that I am a TA, I have been in your shoes a little bit, teaching another language to someone. It involves a tremendous amount of kindness on both the teacher’s side and the student’s side. I have messed up my Russian a few times teaching Russian one grammar to new students, and every student has been incredibly nice when I do make silly mistakes. Learning a new language is a tremendous challenge, and I am very glad I was able to read your article. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Joseph Ehrich

    Abby,
    This article really got my attention about the difficulties that Spanish speaking speakers have learning English. I found it very interesting that the English class at the university was largely made up of older students compared to younger students. Personally, I found it odd that the 54 years old professor was intimidated by a younger English speaker even though he is much more intelligent and wiser. This really shows the two different spectrum’s that individuals learning English and Spanish have and the barriers they have to go through in order to understand a second language. Right now I am taking Spanish and I am struggling putting Spanish words into a sentence which is very intimidating for me. Overall, reading this article made me realize that I am not the only one who struggles learning a second language and how it enriches my knowledge of other languages.

  7. Tessa Lowry

    Hi Abby thank you for sharing! I agree with being uncomfortable with talking to someone knew in a language you are unfamiliar with. English is one of the hardest to learn. I took sign language last year and although my class were mostly beginners I was still nervous because my instructor was deaf. Do you think being fully submersed in a new language was a way that created a familiarity quicker? I have always been curious what it would be like to spend time in another language speaking country and not just a vacation.

  8. Owen Granger

    Abigail,
    I very much respect your analysis of the gravity that non-verbal communication can have. I also found your representation of language as a box very though provoking. I began to thought about my daily relationships and examined if I had been building non-verbal personal connections through conversation. I think to truly connect with someone each person needs to enter a vulnerable state, it seems that societal expectations do not have as much impact when we are vulnerable. I think that all of us can get caught in the daily routine where we just go through the motions, we need to break out of the cycle to build substantial relationships.

  9. Diana Deuel

    Hi Abigail,

    This article is really awesome. Once i started reading this I was really drawn to it. I have tried to learn Spanish in my early years but I have not been able to catch on to it. I have been to Spanish speaking countries and only been able to talk about basics so I understand the embarrassment and frustration that man was feeling. I have had similar experiences while learning Sign Language. It is really frustrating when you are learning a second language and cannot express everything you want to. I can imagine how awesome it was to see all those people learning english and then being able to continue to communicate with them in Spanish. We learn a lot of about ourselves and other people when we are placed in uncomfortable situations. Thank you for sharing this experience!

  10. Katelyn Fischer

    Hi Abby,
    I really enjoyed reading your article, probably because I can relate so well with this feeling of frustration. I am currently in my second year of both Spanish and ASL. I am at a point where I can understand most of what is said to me (or signed), but I struggle with answering. Language is such a complex and amazing thing. There are so many little quirks and funky sayings that just don’t translate, which leads to a lot of frustration on both ends. I love how you compared language to a box, and how we can only use the words in our box to communicate. The frustration of trying to express yourself in another language, a new box, is something everyone experiences, as it is a part of learning a new language.

  11. Marissa Mikrot

    I have never related to a post quite like I have to the one you have written. I am absolutely fascinated with languages and do not deny at all how frustrating and difficult it is to learn one. Taking on the task of learning one is a great challenge, though, that I believe many should do! I’m envious of those whose native language is not English, though, because I believe that is truly is easier for them to learn not only English but other languages. English, because there are so many resources and opportunities for them to learn, and other languages because their native tongue can be similar to another (i.e. Italian and Spanish, Polish and Russian, or Finnish and Hungarian).

  12. William

    Abigail,

    Awesome post as always. I really enjoyed your analogy of “language as a box and bridge.” I believe it is exactly that, if you are learning you are trapped in a box with so much to be said, just without all the words to make it possible. At the same time language can be a bridge whether that be in English student to student at CSS, or on a larger scale outside of your home country somewhere such as Ecuador. Bridging together the differences and similarities that make us humans in search of growth. I appreciated hearing your personal story when you went to the English class at the university, it’s a great example of your box and bridge analogy.
    Thanks for sharing.

  13. Elijah Ortega

    Hi Abigail,
    This was a very interesting read and I agree with a lot of what you had to say. My sophomore year of high school I studied abroad in Peru and with my host family we would have similar conversations to this. I began starting to believe that English is a much harder language to learn for a Spanish speaker than Spanish is for an English speaker, although I have no evidence to support this im interested in hearing if you agree or not. I also absolutely love the language is a box and a bridge analogy and agree with it 100%. There is so much learning a new language can open you up to. However, the path to becoming multi lingual is a strenuous one and can take years to master. I look forward to reading your future posts!

    • Elijah,

      I think I’d agree with you in that it would be more difficult for a Spanish speaker to learn English than an English speaker to learn Spanish. However, it does vary greatly from person to person as well. In fact, some personality types have been proven to be better language learners than others.
      For me, the hardest part has been switching over the syntax & grammar in my head. Learning words and vocabulary is one thing, but using the language correctly is another. In fact, my Spanish professor in Ecuador accused me of “speaking English” in Spanish because I was using the words, but not the grammar.

      We will get there one day!

      Abigail

  14. Jacob Moran

    Abigail, this was a very compelling read. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is to want to be able to express yourself, but just not quite being able to. In the very limited spanish I know it’s hard to be able to say things that actually matter because I only know the very basics. I would never be able to have a meaningful conversation with someone because it would just be about the weather, time, and colors. You make a great point about having english as a first language being such a lucky thing. I’m extremely lucky to not have to go through what you and that ex-cop had to because english seems to be used so widely. I never think about things like that until reading articles like yours. Thanks for the perspective.

  15. Ryan Sauve

    Abigail,

    I have recently just been taking Spanish in classes especially because I know I will be able to use it in the future. It is awesome how you got the experience to speak in English with someone who is just learning because it reminds you they will understand when you can’t always find the wrong word. You have an unspoken understanding and respect to someone who is putting themselves in that uncomfortable position of learning a new language. I do associate closely with how English is often one of the most universally known languages and other countries have items in English on their signs and menus. Even working in restaurants, when people have trouble speaking English and I can bring out my broken Spanish they love it and it is fun to test your new skills in the new world. Great article!

  16. Jane Kariuki

    Hello Abby,
    Your article was very articulate and thought-provoking. Reading this I analyzed my personal situation. I am quite fascinated by languages and the various people that speak it. Interestingly, English is my third language, but I have never taken the time to analyze it for it was a language that was forced onto me. Various schools in Kenya force students to learn and solely communicate in that language for it makes one “an intellectual”. Adding on to your article it is interesting to see how English is taking a global presence. Places that do not have any connection nor history with English can now be found falling into the practice of wanting to learn English. Hence what is so captivating about the language? What is the drive behind the immense interest of learning or knowing the language?

  17. Hannes Stenström

    Abigail,
    Thanks for a very well-written article as always, as well as your thoughtful insights on the limitations not being entirely comfortable in a language puts on communication. I can very much relate to the feeling of being “boxed-in”, when speaking to other people since English is my second language. There are few things that are as frustrating as knowing well and clear what you want to say, but lacking the vocabulary or in the heat of the moment have that necessary word elude you. As you point out in the article, the ability of being able to clearly express oneself also is such a distinctive marker of power. Even tough your conversation partner was older than you and a maths and statistics professor, he was still in a position of weakness in this situation. I agree with you that being in this kind of situation is a humbling experience, and surely one that increases your understanding towards people that are attempting to learn your first language.

  18. Linnea Moore

    Abigail,
    What an interesting read yet again. I found this story to really remind me of my experiences with a Spanish exchange student in my high school. When he came to the U.S. he really knew little English and so being in a school environment was really hard for him because as he described, he also felt limited in his ability to express himself. We had a foods class together, and it was so intriguing to watch him learn how to make American foods that to me, felt like second nature. Reading recipes was especially challenging for him because all the measurements were in the American system. I often used my times with him as examples of why it is important for me to learn a second language. Although it is challenging, taking four years worth of Spanish in high school was perhaps the most rewarding aspect of my high school career. I still want to become fluent in Spanish in the hope of someday becoming able to do therapy in Spanish. I found your discussion of your English class with the ex-cop to be really relatable to my experiences with this exchange student. Thank you for the interesting read!

  19. Jacob Kallenbach

    Hello,
    I really liked and enjoyed your article. I hope you had a great trip and glad to hear that it went well. I thought it was interesting that you had to teach them English. I would have been surprised as well if I walked in and saw that I had to help teach professors. Learning a new language is hard, I tried Spanish in high school for 3 years and I still feel out of the loop when it comes to the language. English does have an air to power like you said, a lot of the places around the world almost cooperate with our language and make it so we can understand. I am glad they are all trying to learn because knowing the English language can be such a helpful tool.

  20. Angela Pecarina

    Thanks Abigail! I found your story to be very interesting and something we all can relate to about language being like a box. I would have felt intimidated also walking into that room having to teach them. I feel like it would have been a heartwarming but eye-opening experience. It is not everyday that we are placed in front of these people being told to teach them at 20 years old. Your story made me think about how lucky we really are.

  21. Megan Gonrowski

    Hey Abby,
    I can totally relate to this feeling of vulnerability when using a second language and how you cannot fully express yourself. I feel very comfortable when I speak Spanish to a 5 year old I know from my summer job because I have enough vocabulary to confidently express myself to a child. However, when I try to speak up in class and talk to other adults using my Spanish knowledge I feel inadequate and nervous. I often raise my hand in class thinking I have a very intelligent answer, but I soon find myself unable to fully express the idea and then I get frustrated and nervous when others do not understand to the depth I am thinking in my head. I foresee this happening a lot at my internship in Ecuador because it is a place that I want to impress and be a helpful addition, but the language barrier will make it difficult. I also like how you mentioned that English is a language that has power because so many people around the world have been learning it as it becomes the new business language and takes the spot of French. This power to conform can be dangerous in areas that are barely holding on to their native languages because English is often pushed as being more important. That is why there are a lot of language restoration programs happening around the world because these smaller languages are being lost because of the power of English or other more widely spoke language. Great article! I loved the way you compared your vulnerability and confusion to the man you were working with.

    • Megan,

      Have you been placed in your internship in Ecuador yet? I’d be curious to know where it’s at!
      To add to your point, how you learn a language affects your vocabulary which affects your experiences. For example, I’ve learned Spanish primarily in the classroom, and one of my friends on the trip learned the language by talking to people, watching TV shows, and listening to music. Because of this, I was initially doing much better in class than she was, while she had some really strong friendships right away as she had more of the “social” vocabulary, if you will.
      Sometimes it even felt like I was learning a new language with everyone I spoke to because everyone has their own voice, accent, sayings, and sense of humor.
      My best advice would be to just put yourself out there & allow yourself to fail. It will be an amazing experience!

      Abigail

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