During my trip to the spectacular Niagara Falls with a group of other international students about a week ago I met Pedro. When he opened his mouth to speak, for an instant, I was surprised we had an American joining us! There is a whole lot of misconceptions, prejudices and stereotypes we might be having germinating in our head the moment we lay our eyes on someone, but it can all fall apart, just like that with one word and the way it is articulated.
Pedro comes from what is referred to as Corazón de Sudamérica, (“Heart of South America”), i.e. Paraguay, which is one of the smallest landlocked countries in the continent. Contrary to the geographical position of his country, Pedro was open to sharing his insights into language learning with me outside the Conrad J. Schmitt Hall of Montclair State University where he is for a semester studying Hospitality Management through the Global UGRAD Program. Prior to the interview, I heard how amazed my research supervisor was at his linguistic skills and that inspired me to talk to him even more.
Still in the process of enjoying Pedro’s accent, I got to learn that he had taught himself English through music, recording himself imitating the sounds of the language as well as translating a range of books varying from comic to more profound ones. That was the Internet that eventually had taken over the entire world, including Pedro’s home country, that made knowing English absolutely crucial in order to learn new things. In Paraguay they have so-called CCPA schools where the immersion method is used and a lot of attention and focus is given to pronunciation as, according to Pedro, this should be one of the central points of language instruction as it enables us to be confident speaking English. Pedro believes that those basic phrases that are routinely taught at schools can’t get people far as they are, e.g., interviewing for jobs or for international programs such as Work and Travel, where it all boils down to making a proper impression for which the way one sounds is key.
No wonder that Pedro went on to teach English later in his life and he admits that the American accent is what students in his country are aiming for. One might assume that all “Americas” that make up the continents of North and South America are closer to the USA, but according to Pedro, it is not about proximity as they are trying to make use of growing opportunities to continue their education after college. Even though Oxford textbooks are mainly used, recordings students are exposed to are mainly illustrative of the American or international English. As a teacher, Pedro is capable of making the best of “a wide array of materials” available for language instruction these days. He is aware of possible difficulties Spanish speakers are faced with. Guarani, which is an indigenous language of South America, is spoken in Paraguay along with Spanish and Jopara, which is a combination of both. These are phonetic differences between all of these languages and English that Pedro believes prevent people from feeling comfortable speaking and interacting in this international lingua franca. The moment when as a result of meticulous drilling and repetition, a student hears him/herself being able to imitate the way a native speaker sounds that they take up a more confident personality perfectly capable of functioning outside their home country.
Pedro also speaks Portuguese that he learned while reading this country’s version of comic books (they can be inspiring, can’t they?) as they were cheaper than those in Spanish. He regrets to admit that he’s now lost all of his Japanese that he picked up from a bunch of Japanese teachers who came to his home city to work and lived in his house. Pedro does seem to have some authority to give advice and what he tells everyone aspiring to learn a new language should do is to have a plan in mind, something that moves and drives them to rise up to this challenge (education, friends, music, etc.). I hope Pedro keeps thriving in whatever career path he chooses to pursue by making an impression on whoever comes his way.