This summer I’ve been working as an AmeriCorps Summer VISTA for a non-profit group called Parents Plus. I have just returned from a year abroad in Spain but I figured with my AmeriCorps position mostly involving office work I would not have much of an opportunity to practice my Spanish this summer. I was mistaken.
I’ve spent the last four weeks using my second language almost every day, talking to participants of our various programs, entering survey forms into our database and even on one occasion writing a release form to get permission to use some photographs on our website. I think the lesson I’ve taken away from this experience so far is that bilingualism can be as important as I want it to be. I could have made it through this summer just fine speaking and thinking only in English, but it seems that I can always find some bilingual opportunity, be it giving a phone interview to a Hispanic couple involved in one of our parenting classes or simply spending an hour or two talking and playing with some kids at a summer school picnic organized by Parents Plus.
At its core, I believe that the sometimes-stumbling attempts of a primarily English-speaking American like myself to speak in Spanish to native Spanish speakers serves as an effective reassurance mechanism. English language learners attempt to communicate in their second language a hundred times a day, struggling to get their ideas across to people that all too often aren’t willing to take the time to listen. Hopefully they feel more comfortable working with me in a shared pigeon of Spanish and English, a setting where both of us have to give and take, and together we can bridge whatever linguistic divides separate us to concentrate on the more important issues at hand.