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Benefits of Learning by Doing and Doing While Learning: Manos a la Obra

The humanities have suffered a substantial hit over the past decade, resulting in departments and instructors having to proclaim even more loudly the worth of cultural, linguistic, and global academic pursuits. Rather than debating the value of one field over another we should redirect the conversation to focus on how language and cultural studies are relevant, not if. Today, Kaitlin Thomas shares how an experiential program can bridge an important gap between classroom learning and real-world experience.

by Kaitlin Thomas

Perhaps of all the challenges unique to the teaching of foreign language and culture, most enigmatic is trying to identify ways to make grammar and vocabulary relevant to the daily life and real-world experiences of teenagers and adults. It's incredible to realize how universal this challenge is (from Pashtu to Spanish and everything in between), though such solidarity certainly does not make it easier to bridge the gap between language in practice and language in life, particularly when making what is often a secondary pursuit one of primary interest.

At the institution where I've taught for the past several years, I observed how hungry students were to connect the skills they were acquiring in the classroom with real-time situations that also complimented their other personal, professional, and academic endeavors. The need within the local community was just as palpable since many organizations had suffered immense financial set backs that prevented the hiring of bilingual and culturally sensitive staff to work with the rapidly increasing number of Latino immigrants. Moreover, the area was rural; not exactly crowded with adequately qualified, experienced, or even interested multi-lingual and culturally competent individuals able to communicate with and reach out to those in need of coordination, service, and simple positive interaction.

In a rural area of the country, where there is an untapped interest and immense need, it was possible to bridge the gap between classroom and life. As a dual-role professor and Latino community liaison, fully aware of where both sides were falling short, it wasn't enough to merely simulate real-world scenarios in the classroom, replicating situations that were readily available right out our door. No, the answer instead lay in bringing the classroom out into the world so that students could quite literally dirty their hands while pushing themselves to new linguistic frontiers and cultural understandings that could not be reached in a classroom alone.

The results were remarkable. What started as a small group of six students interested in getting off campus and doing something a bit out of the box, has turned into a full-fledged, college-wide externship program that works with upwards of forty students and five different organizations a year. Requirements to participate are simple: one must be studying Spanish (at any level) and have an interest to connect language and culture with academic and professional ambitions. Designing the program in such a way that beginners up to advanced proficiency majors could equally participate, has created an unprecedented forum for students to intimately experience how the language and culture connects to their broader aspirations of becoming doctors, school teachers, psychologists, international business traders and owners, and more.

Would we consent to a surgeon operating on us who had never before anatomized an actual human body? Or permit an engineer who had only studied pictures of machines to repair a vital device? In many fields, expertise is recognized precisely because of the field experience required since it is through such physical and emotive learning that abilities are learned, honed, and eventually independently utilized. We are doing our students a disservice by not seeking out situations or championing programs that place them in precisely the types of situations that they will find themselves in. If we are able to facilitate a second language field learning experience that enriches not only the pragmatic grammar and vocabulary applications, but the abstract socio-cultural nuances as well, what greater victory is there as an educator? 

Learning a foreign language is a performative pursuit. In order to cross the boundary from textbook speech to fluid and natural conversation and nonverbal cultural cues, one must engage with how native speakers warp and manipulate the language in curious ways not always examined within the constraints of a classroom. After all, to borrow from an ancient Chinese proverb, "tell me and I'll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I'll understand."

Kaitlin Thomas is Visiting Instructor of Spanish and ELL, Washington College; Instructor of Spanish, Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth; and Spanish Interpreter, Maryland Judiciary System. 

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