If you ever thought of taking a foreign language class in high school, chances are that your school at least had the standard three: Spanish, French, and German. These days, it is no surprise to see monolingual high school students trying to become bilingual considering that there’s a growing multicultural population in the United States. Reflecting this increasing interest in learning languages, the Internet has enabled us to learn anything from Mandarine Chinese to Esperanto from anywhere and anytime, whether it is a series of Youtube videos or a handy language-learning app on a smartphone. Nonetheless, it requires considerable discipline to keep learning new vocabulary words and grammar rules at a steady pace without anyone to motivate you. In retrospect, a formal classroom setting during high school is one of the few opportunities left to properly learn a language because it is increasingly difficult to find the time and energy to grasp a new tongue.
Since I grew up in a Spanish-speaking country, I decided to volunteer for NSP because I wanted to use my multilingualism to help students with the struggles of becoming bilingual. One of the great things about working for this program is that you get to pick which school you want to work at! Currently, I work at Mount Carmel High School, which is an all-boys Catholic school that takes great pride in its athletic achievements. I attended a parochial school for my secondary education, so I thought I would be most comfortable in a familiar school environment. From the daily prayer sessions to the strict uniform guidelines, the school definitely felt similar to the school I attended several years ago.
On the first day when I stepped into the Spanish classroom, I could feel every pair of eyes in the room focused on me, wondering what exactly I was doing at this school. After some introductions and incredulous expressions at the fact that an Asian’s first language could be Spanish, I spent the following days observing the class reading passages together from the textbook, playing Spanish vocabulary games to review for a test, and using the occasional Youtube video that would clarify a particularly difficult concept. Whenever the students were working on translations and practice exercises, I walked around the room helping out here and there, trying to look at the students’ work as discreetly as possible to make sure they were doing it correctly.
At first, it took a while to get the students to get used to me, especially considering that there are barely any Asians at the school. But soon enough, I got to know the names of the students, their work habits, and their unique mannerisms. In turn, the students were eventually comfortable enough with me to loudly call my name whenever they needed assistance in class, especially when the translations provided by Google Translate seemed wonky. Even though the boys heavily rely on translation apps for the assignments, I hope to see the day when they will be able to get through an entire paragraph in Spanish on their own. For now, I will keep on giving them clues to what specific words mean and constantly remind them that learning a new language is worth their time despite the difficulties. Although this may sound clichéd, there truly is nothing more rewarding than seeing a student finally figure out what a word means by using context clues instead of online translations.
Vo Ram Yoon Yeo is a second-year in the College, majoring in Comparative Human Development. He tutors Spanish at Mount Carmel High School.