Four of the fourteen people in the Sin Fronteras program focused on developing Spanish language skills during their time in Oaxaca. Their individual experiences were similar in many ways yet also very different in other ways. This page will share some of their experiences, highlighting the ways in which an immersion program varies greatly from the experience of taking a traditional language class in school.
Spending four hours a day, four days a week in Spanish language classes was intense, and very important to the development of my Spanish comprehension, but perhaps more important than the formal language instruction that I received was what I learned through my home stay. My host mother had a strict policy of “No English” at the table, and since we ate breakfast and “la comida (a large, late lunch)” together every day, I was really forced out of my comfort level and pushed to practice my conversational Spanish in a natural setting. The opportunity to engage with people in their daily lives was invaluable. The need/desire to communicate in a normalized environment outside of the classroom allowed and encouraged me to stretch my Spanish far greater than I would have at home. One of the other students at Becari, studying with his family told me that as great as our classes were, when he left he spent the rest of the day speaking to his family in English–sharing my experience encouraged the family to try a homestay for the next part of their trip. As much as I appreciated my homestay for what it did to improve my language skills though, the best thing about it was the opportunity to spend six weeks with a lovely, lovely, family. Getting to know my host mother and her extended family was by far one of the highlights of my trip, and a truly wonderful experience–the program would not have been nearly as rewarding without it.
I took many years of Spanish classes in high school and in college yet I never felt competent nor confident in my abilities. Hours of practicing how to ask for directions, ways to describe a birthday party, and completing worksheets on por vs. para left me frustrated and entirely unable to have a real conversation. So I had sort of given up on learning Spanish. However, through my various experiences as a social worker, I realized how essential it is that I improve my Spanish in order to provide effective and culturally humble services to clients. My internship last year was at a community clinic where a large number of our patients were monolingual Spanish speakers. They represented some of the most vulnerable members of the community however I was unable to assist them due to my severely limited Spanish language abilities. It was deeply frustrating yet it also really helped motivate me to improve my Spanish. I was thrilled at the opportunity to participate in the Sin Fronteras program this summer in order to experience a linguistic and cultural immersion. Not only was I in intensive language classes for four hours a day, living with a host family, and surrounded by the rich Oaxacan culture, but I also had the opportunity to connect these experiences with my work back home. After learning about gender roles, healing practices, the culture of hospitality, and so much more, the questions that continually arose were: What does this mean for me as a social worker? How can I apply this knowledge to my future work? What does it mean to be culturally humble? Exploring these questions led to beautiful conversations with my instructors and peers as well as lots of internal contemplation. Further, it strengthened my motivation to learn Spanish. Instead of language classes feeling disjointed and pointless as they previously had, struggling to understand the subjunctive felt intentional and relevant. Our amazing Spanish teachers Betty and Javier were happy to include social work pertinent exercises and vocabulary in our language classes. And our weekly platicas with Monica, a Oaxacan psychologist, gave us a chance to learn interventions and clinical tools in Spanish. I was able to have conversations about poverty, gender, and social activism in Spanish. I was excited to stumble through conversations in Spanish about mental health stigma and political activism. I was more motivated and more successful in my efforts to learn Spanish than I have ever been before. The Sin Fronteras program was an amazing and unique experience that I will never forget. I’m eager to continue strengthening my Spanish language abilities and exploring how to be an effective and culturally humble social worker.
Poco a Poco
Participating in Sin Fronteras has been a unique challenge, and a life altering experience. This experience caused me to face many doubts and insecurities about my ability to communicate effectively. At multiple points in the trip I felt hopeless, helpless, and like a child. I was out of my element and at times felt isolated and alone. Often I would panic that I had forgotten English, was overwhelmed, and felt completely out of my learning comfort zone. Yet, I had support from very compassionate and skilled peers and professors. In reality this is not a commonly shared privilege.
I realized just how privileged I am, in the manner that I am learning Spanish. As much as I struggle to learn the Spanish language, I am a UC Berkeley student, I have American citizenship, and I experienced only a fraction of the many hardships people experience in the U.S. I was taught accelerated grammar and conversation skills in a classroom that held up to 5 students to one teacher, I lived with an encouraging and nurturing host family, had comfortable living accommodations, and I could count on two amazing meals a day. After six weeks I could return home to an even more comfortable living and learning environment.
This experience really showed me how my privileges shaped my life while in Oaxaca, and when I return home to Berkeley. I have a more informed understanding of the struggle many people back home experience, who speak and understand English at varying levels yet work incredibly hard to function and survive, live in less safe environments and with less or inadequate resources. People who still persevere to learn English because they have no other choice, all while enduring significant amounts of hostility in their daily lives and coping with the many stressors they encounter while transitioning or living in the States.
I am grateful for this experience, this process, and the insight I have received from my language classes in Oaxaca. I don’t know how I could have gained this kind of insight from taking traditional language classes at home. I am grateful to the professors and the Becari program for their professionalism, patience, and enthusiasm. I am so very grateful to the generosity of my host family and the people who engaged and shared with me in Oaxaca. I have learned what it takes to learn a language and when there is so much on the line…and I know there is so much more to learn.
A lot of Community Love
I have experienced so many rich and impactful experiences in Oaxaca as a Spanish learner and Social Work Student. I think I have benefitted the most from my experience as a Spanish learner as it has given me the opportunity to connect with my classmates, teachers and the local Oaxaca community in an educational and enriching way. Something I could not have gotten while taking a Spanish class in the United States.
As a language learner with several learning disabilities I was very worried about taking up too much space in class and having to depend on others for a lot of support. I have been humbled by the overwhelming support and patience others have shown me, in my classes at Becari, with my host family, and with other Berkeley students and locals. I have made several local friends who have met me at local cafes here in Oaxaca, after my Spanish classes. They answered all my million questions about the Spanish language, have endured me reading children’s books in Spanish to them, and playing “Loteria” so I can practice pronouncing Spanish words. They have given me fun challenges like singing Spanish songs for Karaoke and cheering me on even though I am a horrible singer and struggle pronouncing Spanish words. They have been patient with me while I take 10 minutes to form one sentence, and they help to correct me with each mistake even though they have already told me how to say the same thing, an hour ago. They are great at repeating what they just said until I understand what they are asking me.
I often wonder if my experience here in Oaxaca is common in other communities, or specific to the giving and sharing culture of Oaxaca? I also wonder if English learners in the United States are received in a similar manner? My gut tells me it is not the norm. I have a lot of friends who immigrated to the US and even though I have supported them I have never rearranged my schedule to meet a friend and practice English in the same way I have been embraced here. This warmth is something I will take with me to the United States and whether it is a new friend, client or stranger I will try to support them in their language learning experience as I have been supported here.
I am also grateful for my classmates and teachers at Becari. The teachers are all very patient with me and allow me to try and try, and try again. My classmates have not seemed to get frustrated when I take longer to understand or when I need the teacher to explain the concepts in English, and I appreciate the support and acceptance. My roommate has been so helpful to share a lot of her time and energy and has helped me to communicate with my host mom, friends, classmates, people in restaurants, etc, etc, etc. I attempt to speak in Spanish but my pronunciation and lack of vocabulary is so bad I usually get blank and confused stares back at me. That’s when my roommates and other classmates jump in to the rescue. I saw myself improving a little each day, although not at the same rate as the other Spanish learners, but improving none-the-less. I went from 1% comprehension to around 10% (depending on how fast the Spanish speaker was talking). I have so much more respect for individuals who immigrate to the United States and do not have the privilege of attending a language school or be surrounded by a loving and embracing community.
by Jorin Bukosky, Rina Breakstone, Jia Broussard, and Rebecca Leach