How to make a political statement by learning Spanish

SpanishClub3
Photo credit : bhs.burlesonisd.net

We are living in interesting times. Times when xenophobia, racism and suspicion of the ‘other’ are going mainstream, at least at the level of political rhetoric. While one can excuse this as the misguided logic leading up to the primaries, one cannot ignore the amount of confusion this is causing- both domestically and across the world. President Obama had to clarify recently at a high level ASEAN leaders’ summit that this trend of xenophobia does not represent America and it will pass[i].

Culturally, this phenomenon of xenophobia also challenges the very idea of what the U.S. is about – the ‘land of opportunities,’ an enduring myth that has survived centuries[ii]. The complexity in the idea of ‘land of opportunities’ is that it is true under certain circumstances, for certain people. While being challenged by nativists and others, who resisted immigration, this idea has survived; thanks to the generosity, wisdom and plain common sense of the American people and (some of) their law makers.

Additionally, this 2016 Political campaign is challenging the very idea of a culturally plural America. This divisive campaign is also bringing up a lot of issues that I deeply care about, both culturally and politically. I am both surprised and shocked at the level of bigotry against ‘Hispanic’ people, in particular. Language is at the heart of this battle, as well.

Let me clarify: My wife is a Spanish speaker –she is Mexican-American- and I was only vaguely familiar with the language. When we dated for four years, before getting married, I would add ‘o’ to every English word, to make it ‘Spanish’ sounding. Initially, I thought it was funny, but later on realized that I was being facetious and outright ignorant, not to mention offensive, as well. I love my (new) Mexican family as much as my (inherited) Indian one and it pains me to see the kind of narrow-mindedness that is characterizing American public sphere.

So, how does a brown, Indian born Muslim, with a Catholic Mexican-American wife tackle such bigotry? By learning Spanish, of course.

Keeping in mind the common wisdom of ‘happy wife, happy life’, I decided to learn the language. Well, that wasn’t the only motivation. I have always wanted to learn Spanish. As someone who knows four other languages – I grew up in India: where being a polyglot is the norm, rather than the exception- I thought that learning Spanish couldn’t be that hard. But boy! have I been wrong. Spanish grammar is hard. And tricky. And extremely nuanced. But it is a challenge worth overcoming and I am enjoying the journey. This process is also helping me map my own limits, of learning as well as expanding my skills of observation.

I have no delusions of grandeur and no great ambitions of mapping the cultural and administrative landscape of the U.S. like Alexis De Tocqueville did, when he wrote Democracy in America[iii]in 1835. But I do think there is a need for closely examining the changing contours of what America is ‘becoming.’ Tocqueville, who, until today is cited in scholarly and popular books and articles is considered one of the great chroniclers of American life. His greatest insight was that America was very ‘equal’ in many ways. The trends of aristocracy were long over, given that Americans resisted the ‘old world’ ways of doing this. He says “ Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance[iv].”

Tocqueville went on to argue that equality of social condition translates into equality in political opportunities. The equal political rights that are given to everyone are a gift of democracy and it also means that everyone who is in this country ought to be treated in a similar manner. The current political rhetoric by Mr. Trump seems to be challenging this very idea – by clubbing blacks, gays, Muslims, Mexicans and others are ‘undesirables’ and shutting them out of ‘respectable’ American society. Even if it means doing so, rhetorically.

For me, learning Spanish is also proving to be a ‘border crossing’ phenomenon – quite literally. You can reach across and touch people’s hearts with the language and make them feel that you are ‘one of them.’ Partaking in a ‘linguistic community’ is being part of a culture, a way of life and a way of thinking. It goes merely beyond the ability to string a few words, together. I am learning this, each day. I did visit Mexico City with my wife, over Thanksgiving and learnt that my Spanish flows much better in Mexico, for some reason. Something about ‘full immersion’ perhaps?

At the same time, Spanish is proving to be my inspiration and a test of what I can push myself through. It is also teaching me that we are constantly borrowing and learning from one another. Look at words such as ‘Bastante’ (enough) and ‘Alfil (Chess piece) among others; which have been borrowed from Arabic. Besides, Spanish itself has Latin roots and shares ‘family resemblances’ with many other European languages.  There is an inherent cosmopolitanism in Spanish. This language of the conquerors – yes, let’s not forget the Spanish colonial history – did assimilate from other cultures and languages. In this regard, Spanish is very open and embracing. In addition, I am able to appreciate the intermingling of the other part of my heritage – the Muslim one – when I watch Destinos and look at the architecture and linguistic influences of the Moors on Spain[v].

Language, like other aspects of life is not insular. As a student of Spanish I am learning this and appreciating the increasing complexity of thought, learning. ‘Effort’ has taken on a new meaning – though I learnt that lesson well, when I was finishing up my dissertation writing. Nuance – both in thought and in speech-is another aspect of language that I am learning. Just a small change of accent or word can make a lot of difference.

Learning a language as an adventure ? One of the bigger insights I have gained personally since I started learning Spanish is that one needs to have a sense of adventure and also courage, to succeed. While the rudiments of a language, its grammar may be known, a learner does not know ‘all’ the rules or even the words necessary to form a fully coherent sentence. At the beginning stages at least! As one progresses, with trial and error; one’s confidence grows. It happened with me too. I am at what my teacher; Claudia calls ‘basic-intermediate’ level, where I am forming some coherent sentences and am beginning to understand much more than 50% of all words spoken to me.

Language in use – What Wittgenstein tells us about language? He is considered the greatest philosopher of the modern era. As this BBC podcast says “the limits of my language are the limits of our world[vi]”. While I will not indulge in the intricacies of Tractacus Logicus Philosophicus, his magnum opus; I will however, point to one of his key arguments – that language must be understood in how it is used. Not merely in terms of the symbolism that it denotes. ‘Language and logic also point to the limits of our world’ would be a good way to summarize one of his key arguments. I would argue, by way of Wittgenstein that having a broader ‘spectrum of logic’ can open up more ways of seeing the world. Better linguistic skills can enhance reasoning and ways of imagining the world.

Finally, language can unite us more than divide us. Just look around the world – there are more than 400 million Spanish speakers around the world[vii]. That is more than the population of the U.S. Learning Spanish can also diminish the world’s ignorance a little bit. Adding an additional speaker of another language is a good thing – and I say this as the son of two language teachers, who grew up in India, that has more than 23 ‘official languages[viii].’

With over 41 million native speakers of Spanish, the U.S. has more Spanish speakers than in Spain, according to a study by Instituto Cervantes[ix]. Besides, there are 11.6 million bi-lingual speakers. This is not counting people like me, who are learning their fifth language. So, how can one ignore or at worse malign these people, who speak other languages? By 2050, there are going to be an estimated 150 million Spanish speakers, making it the largest Spanish speaking country in the world. How can one fight this natural diversity of languages and cultures? If the founding fathers had the wisdom to avoid this issue, keeping in mind the diversity, why should we tinker with the existing order? Why fix something that is not broken and also why fight against the order of how our world is becoming global – through trade, commerce, better communication technologies? And of course, the growth of appreciation of Latin American culture. As my wife asks ‘Why hate Mexicans, when you love Mexican tacos’?

On that note, it makes sense to ask: Does the ‘English only’ movement even make any logical sense? Obviously, Wittgenstein would disagree[x].  Such racist and rhetoric narratives are the border-line where logic stops and bigotry begins.

 

 

[i] http://dailycaller.com/2016/02/16/obama-slams-trump-and-rubio-foreign-observers-are-troubled-video/

[ii] http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8140.html

[iii] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm

[iv]  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm#link2HCH0006 Chp.3

[v]  https://learner.org/series/destinos/

[vi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9jYaTCn8vw

[vii]  https://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size

[viii] http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Languages_of_India

[ix] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/29/us-second-biggest-spanish-speaking-country

[x] http://www.iperstoria.it/vecchiosito/httpdocs//?p=547

“Where there is learning, there is change.”

With election season making immigration and immigrants a hot-button issue, the question of their education has not come up, in a substantive way. On the contrary, there is much noise and talking points about the supposed ‘burden’ that immigrants pose to the American economy. In this insightful interview, we talk with an expert on this topic, about the issue of adult education, with a focus on education of recent immigrants and the untapped potential that can be harnessed.

Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez is an Ed.D with a focus on adult education. In this short interview, he outlines his motivation for studying this population group and what drives him. As he points out, adult education is one of the most neglected areas of education and needs more attention and funding, to help adults realize their full potential. As he says in his doctoral dissertation “There is an inextricable link between the robustness of the American economy and competitiveness and the strength of the educational institutions and their educational leaders in preparing the new workforce with the skills they need to compete, to follow a clear pathway into the middle class, and continue to prosper.”

Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez
Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez

 

  1. What motivated you to go into adult education? Why this population group?

Gustavo Lara: I selected this population for two reasons: (1) a brief “conversation” with the school principal at the beginning of my career, and (2) during my first class as an instructor for adult learners, I observed every one of my students, evaluated their needs and concluded that adult education should be first class education.

In my first day as a K-12 adult educator, my school principal called me just a few minutes before the beginning of my class and said: “Mr. Lara, everything you need is in the classroom; therefore, I do not want you to ask for anything else.” She continued her monolog, “This is adult education and adult education is second class. Your adult students are not our priority. Our energy and resources are dedicated to our K-12 students.”  After this monolog I went directly to my classroom. When I got into my classroom, I scanned it just to make a mental inventory. I began with all the technology. I noticed three items.  I saw an old T.V. set hanging on the wall. A very, very, very slow computer. It took me half an hour from the moment I turned the computer on to call the last person in my roster. Lastly, an old printer connected to another device out of my classroom.

According to my first school principal, adult education is second class education but the needs of adult learners are numerous that requires a first class education. We, as instructors, are not only helping them to accomplish their modest academic aspirations, but also we are helping them to become self-sufficient individuals with the ability participate and contribute to their society where they live in.

  1. What challenges did you face as an adult learner? 

GL: One of the main challenges that I encountered in the beginning of this long journey was time. We came to this country with absolutely nothing, but with a big sack of hope and dreams. In my case, which is similar to those who traveled from the South to the North, the first thing we have to do find a job. Once I found a job, I had to decide between work extra time and consequently earn additional money to feed my family or attend the local school and learn English. Most of the time I chose the former. As immigrants, we know that learning the language is vital to succeed in this country but family always comes first. Now as an instructor, my students are facing the same dilemma, feeding their families or earning their GED diploma, learning English, or attending institutions offering technical careers. In the same way I did it in those days, they usually choose the former.

 

  1. What do you think can be the role of adult education in empowering immigrants in the U.S.?

GL : I believe integration should be the main role of adult education. The result of this integration is participation. The population we are serving come with a wide range of abilities and educational and cultural background. Some come from traditional educational paths, having performed poorly in high school and are anxious to return and pick all the pieces up and continue their educational journey. Others have discontinued their education for diverse reasons, intending to return, but work family, financial need, or lack of academic success of lack of information prevented them to return.  Finally, some others take advantage of adult education programs to acquire new skills to stay competitive in the workplace and improve their employability, or to prepare them for a career change, and consequently increase their earning power.

The dynamic of today’s marketplace is creating a perpetual evolving economy; therefore, the role of adult education should be on providing adult learners with the necessary tools, not only intellectual, such as critical thinking and problem solving skills, but technical skills to successfully transition from the classroom to the workplace or to any institution of higher learning and compete and succeed in this new economy and live a productive and satisfying life.

 

  1. Tell us a bit about your family, the values that guide how you have educated your daughters

GL: I was raised by three exceptional individuals, two women and one man. They were my mothers and he was my Father. Although they did not possess a formal academic education, they knew the value of education. They instilled in everyone of us the love for learning, passion for sharing and serving others, and the importance of education as an instrument to reach our dreams and aspirations. We, my brothers and sisters, constantly listened to the same song over and over: education is the key that open the door of opportunities. Like my parents, and with the same level of intensity and determination, I sang the same song to my daughters.  

 

  1. What is key to helping recent immigrants reach their potential? 

GL: I believe that education is the vehicle to help newcomers reach their potential. Coming from the South to the North, the color of immigrants has never changed nor their dreams and aspiration. However, the new immigrants are arriving with new tools to reach their dreams. One of those tools is education. The new immigrants are more educated; therefore, we have the social and professional responsibility to integrate their knowledge and professional experiences in the curriculum of adult education and in our instructional practices to transitioning them into the workplace or institution of postsecondary education.

In my dissertation, I mention that despite a projection made by Carnevale, Jayasundera, and Hanson (2010), forecasting the creation of 47 million new jobs by 2018, and that 30 million will require postsecondary education, a report presented by the US Department of Education (2012) indicated that college completion rate is falling today, particularly among young Americans. This trend threatens to undermine the nation’s global competitiveness and further exacerbate inequality in the nation’s income distribution.

  1. What are your thoughts on the recent controversy about Mexican immigrants, in regards to Donald Trump’s remarks? 

GL: If someone asks me to summarize these remarks in one word, I would say IGNORANCE. Ignorant can lead only another ignorant. This individual does not know that we have been in this land before his ancestors. He does not know that a large number of Mexican immigrants and their descendants either volunteered or were drafted into the armed services during World War II. It is estimated that about 500,000 Mexican Americans joined the armed services during the war. Despite the continued discrimination and racism at home, hundred of thousands of Mexican immigrants and their descendants joined the armed services to defend the democratic principles of his great nation.  He does not know that Mexican immigrants and their descendants make up 12 percent of the immigrants that own a small business. Around 570,000 businesses in the United States, more than 1 in 25, are owned by a Mexican immigrant, and together they generate over 17 billion dollars in revenues per year. He does not know Mexican immigrants have contributed between 3.7 to 4.1 percent to the U.S GDP in the 2003 – 2011 period, according to a new report by BBVA Research. He does not know that Mexican immigrants and their descendants occupy a more significant place in the American cultural life than ever before. He can find Mexican immigrants and their descendants serving as high government officials in the three branches of government, as well as governors, local mayors, sheriffs, school leaders, and school boards members.  He does not know that the nation’s clothing, music, sport, art, literature, academia, science, and food have all been influenced by Mexican immigrants and their descendants. I wonder if this person knows the history of this nation. Based in his remarks, it seems that he does not know we are an important pillar sustaining the greatness of this nation. We are not leaving; we are in its blood.

 

  1. What should adult instructors do to empower their students, in spite of the negative stereotyping of Mexicans and other immigrants? 

GL:  Where there is learning; there is change. Where there is change; there is learning. Classroom is an important platform to change and transform individuals. We, as instructors, have the moral and professional responsibility to incorporate these social issues, negative or positive, into the curriculum and into our instructional practices. Yes, we are responsible to prepare them academically and equip them with the tools to succeed in the workplace or continue successfully their educational journey, but also, we are responsible to create agents of social change.