I met Alejandra from Colombia in Union City, New Jersey. She is in the class of one of the linguistics professors I’d met. She volunteered to participate in my project and it was a pleasure to hear her story. This town, which is just about 20 minutes’ ride from midtown New York, is a linguistically and culturally vibrant area where walking along these narrow streets with Catholic churches and statues as well as cafés selling all sorts of Latin American specialties, you can mostly hear Spanish rather than English being spoken.
Alejandra is doing her Master’s degree in Education at New Jersey City University. She is also a teacher of her native language – Spanish. Alejandra started learning English at school, but it was not until she was around 20 or 21 that she applied for a job that required English that she managed to improve her skills. Back at school she remembers struggling with understanding simple structures or even writing a simple word. As a result, she grew to hate the subject and had no idea why she couldn’t succeed. At some point, she started seeing this language as a challenge and was determined to improve. That was a native speaker that she once met who helped her understand some simple grammatical rules and that discovery was a turning point. As for speaking, there weren’t many activities offered to work on it. She wasn’t still very confident with her English after she had got that job, but it involved talking and helping others and by taking risks, she eventually started making a more significant progress.
Nowadays in Colombia, a very rich and linguistically diverse area due to a great number of native languages spoken, people are making an effort to learn English. Schools are trying to offer more than what used to be purely grammar classes as in order to land good jobs, people have to prove they are actually capable of speaking the language. In terms of keeping improving her English, living here in New Jersey is a bit challenging for Alejandra as a lot of Spanish is spoken and she has to find ways to practice. Living with American families and teaching people Spanish has been a great opportunity for her to speak English and share her culture with others. No matter whichever language Alejandra is speaking, she always tries to be herself and others see her in the same way as well.
Overall, being here and teaching Americans Spanish has been an amazing experience. Alejandra finds it really wonderful how people here are ready to embrace the culture and let go of some stereotypes. There are a lot of schools in New Jersey where people can learn Spanish. There are economic incentives for it as well as a lot of people in business speak Spanish as their first language. Being one of the most frequently spoken languages in the world, Spanish has a lot of local varieties and according to Alejandra, Americans are enthusiastic about learning the Colombian Spanish as they think the accent is easier to grasp. She doesn’t believe there are too many differences and Spanish speakers from different countries can pretty much understand each other.
Alejandra has also had some experience living in Israel and learned to read some Hebrew. She could read the Bible and for her that was a mesmerizing experience. Even though she didn’t continue to study the language, she is still happy whenever she hears some familiar words in Hebrew. In the future she would like to take up Chinese as she finds it really astounding how many people speak it.
Finally, she believes that finding a good teacher to guide you through the basics is essential if you want to succeed in learning a new language. This is what she thinks you should do before you invest into actually going to a country where your target language is spoken. “Make mistakes, be confident, take risks, then buy your ticket!” I was really amazed by Alejandra’s enthusiasm for teaching and sharing her language as she offered me her help with Spanish, which I was a bit confused about continuing learning after having previously started with Italian and French. It is about finding an inspiring and enthusiastic teacher after all!