When I arrived in Barajas Airport in Madrid, I was greeted by Cristina Blanco, the (fabulous) director of the program. My mouth felt sticky, I was terribly jet-lagged, and still left-over anxious over having had my visa inspected. When I saw Cristina holding the sign that said CIEE (just like the literature said she would be), and wearing a big smile, I was relieved. At least, I was relieved until she said “sshhhrrrrshhsshhrrr.”
This was what castellano sounded like to me.
I smiled emptily at her. “¿Cómo?” I asked. “What?”
“Sshhhrrrrsshrr,” she repeated kindly, pointing over to a growing group of young people about my age.
Over there. She wanted me to go over there and join the rest of the group. I nodded and moved in the direction she indicated, but I had understood nothing. I was terrified.
It all felt so unfair. I had studied Spanish in school for eight years. I knew words! I knew a lot of words! I listened to Juanes all the time! I liked Pedro Almodóvar films! And instead of feeling confident, the entire world turned into static.
At first I cried a lot. I was exhausted after having a five minute conversation with my host family. I fell asleep watching my English language DVDs every night. But after two weeks or so the static began to clear out. The shhhhrrrrshhhhhh sounds distilled into words that I recognized and could soon use. Two months in, I was able to joke with my host family, and on the airplane home I was able to discuss Spanish politics in Spanish.
editors note: You can read the full program review on Abroad101!
But how did this help me in my career?
I teach American Literature and ESL (English as a Second Language) in a high school in Queens, New York. Approximately 70% of my students are former English Language Learners, and of these 55% speak Spanish at home. Speaking Spanish is obviously useful. Anywhere you work in the world, speaking Spanish can only be an asset. But you probably already knew that.
Those two weeks I spent lost in static taught me more about second language acquisition than I could learn from a textbook. The strategies I used are strategies that I encourage my students to use.
- Sit in the front of the classroom and minimize distractions.
- Read for the gist of paragraphs rather than trying to understand every word on the page.
- Use context clues when you can and a dictionary when you can’t.
- Use physical and facial cues to help construct meaning.
- Ask people to slow down or say it again.
- Ask for help and ask questions.
- Speak your native language when you need to. It’s totally fine.
I strongly believe that I have a better understanding of how to teach literature to ELLs and former ELLs because of my experience abroad. Teachers of ELLs are encouraged to discuss strategies for learning, as well as concepts to be learned. I had to learn these strategies for myself, so when I present these ideas, I am speaking as someone with experience, not someone who only read about these strategies in Chapter 2. Because we have all braved the static, we know we can trust each other to get to the point where the words come freely.
– Elizabeth Tanzer-Ritter
I am in my eighth year of teaching English and ESL in the highly diverse New York City Public Schools. I graduated from Brandeis University in 2007 with a major in English Language and Literature and a double minor in Secondary Education and Spanish Language and Literature. I studied abroad during my junior year of college. I studied in Alcalá de Henares, Spain in 2006 (and it was awesome). I earned a graduate degree from Queens College in English Education in 2011 and a certificate in TESOL from St. John’s University in 2013. I love what I do and I am so grateful to be able to apply my experiences abroad to my experience in the workplace.