Speak! Stories Kick off with a Moving Tale by Spanish Tutor, Judith K. Lang Hilgartner
Speak! Story #1
Kristin and Jesse
Jesse’s Course: One-on-One Spanish, 38hrs
Tutor: Judith K. Lang Hilgartner
BY Judith K. Lang Hilgartner
One the most rewarding and challenging experiences I have ever had as a teacher was working one-on-one with an UVa Spanish Medical Interpreter, Jesse, through Speak! Language Center. When I first met Jesse, I was so impressed with his linguistic abilities that my first fear was that I wouldn’t be able to teach him anything. After all, what could you teach an already professional Spanish interpreter? I realized quickly that this teaching relationship would be the most exciting and harrowing of my career since it addressed a fundamental question of language study: can we achieve perfection? Is it even worth trying?
Scholars generally agree that during the first year of language acquisition, a student’s learning curve is pretty fast. This means that the relative pace of learning between a beginning or intermediate learner gets slower and more fine-tuned the longer the language is studied. For Jesse and I, this meant that we were dealing with the smallest idiomatic nuances and delicate grammatical details of which many natives speakers aren’t even aware. At the beginning of our work together, “perfection” seemed like an unachievable goal, but I knew that Jesse had already accomplished so much, that the sky was the limit!
First, we collaborated and created a lesson plan that fit his interests, the rigor needed, and his time schedule. We decided to start at square one: the basics—literally covering in minute detail everything that advanced language learners’ often take for granted that they know. Instead of employing traditional lecture during our two and half hour sessions each week, I would ask Jesse to “teach me” in Spanish all of grammar topics that we covered. Since he had learned by immersion, this was sometimes frustrating because he felt like he had to go “back to kindergarten”, but the amazing thing was that since I too learned Spanish by immersion, I could empathize with having to learn many basic concepts for the first time. In this way, Jesse’s and my similar background made us a great team!
As the weeks progressed, we did many different activities depending on the day: music, aural/phonetic training, translation theory, listening comprehension, written translation, vocabulary drills, simultaneous translation of TedTalks, and a lot of conversation—always in the target language. We never spoke to each other in English unless we were working on a complicated translation. One of the most enjoyable activities was the role play because I would enlist a Spanish speaking friend to come by and play a Spanish monolingual patient, I would be the doctor, and Jesse would interpret. During this whole time playing the doctor, I would write notes on his interpretation. After our guinea pig patient left, we would discuss the role play in detail. This proved one of the most fruitful activities that we did. Sometimes, we would enlist a native English speaker to play the doctor according to a scenario that I would compose. That way, I became the patient and had the chance to throw Jesse some linguistic curve-balls—which he handled with much grace. We enacted these scenarios exactly how he would normally do them in the clinic, so sometimes these scenes would last for an hour or more. From the content of my notes, Jesse and I would go over everything later and talk about how things could have been improved and what things he did well. It was great for both of us to see how much he improved as the weeks continued.
One day, Jesse came to class with an idea. He invited me to come and observe him so that I would see him under real-life pressures and circumstances. From that point forward, I would go to UVa Hospital and watch him in action. At first, he was nervous to be put under the microscope, but I told him, “Jesse, this is your world. I’m just a language teacher. Own it. You got this!” And he did. Jesse did such a phenomenal job; countless times I was just in awe of his winsome capacity to serve under such incredibly emotional and tense situations. In one day, we would go from the bedside of a patience dying of lymphatic cancer to a patient with undefined stomach pain to a patient with syphilis to a genetic counseling appointment and back to the patient with cancer. Shadowing Jesse showed me how demanding his work-pace was, especially for someone working “double-time”, constantly interpreting everything coming both ways.
The most memorable experience was when Jesse interpreted for a family whose eight-day old baby had just come out of open heart surgery successfully. We all cried. For me, it was such a privilege to witness Jesse capably handle these moments of raw emotion. His heart to serve was a testimony to me of the deep kind of love and compassion with which he carried out his role as an interpreter. Suddenly, I realized why all of those grueling hours of grammar, translation, theory and other idiomatic quandaries made sense.
Language is so much more than theory, grammar, or a set of rules. Jesse taught me that it is alive. In those moments of simultaneous interpretation, I would be listening and all of a sudden everything would be in-sync. I could almost see the words flowing from person to person, an ever-changing, ever-dynamic stream of color. Interpretation is not just a mere question of changing the “sign” or “code” like some kind of robotic one-for-one spitting out of information. Language is communicating life. Interpretation is like a two-way door continually opening, receiving, and transmitting, and opening again with spell-binding circularity. While interpreting, Jesse became a living conduit through which flowed thought, meaning, emotion, and a knowledge that the listener so desperately needed to comprehend.
In that stark hospital room, where the baby’s parents had waited for almost a day to hear the news of the surgery, I saw the beauty of language. It was in the doctor’s sigh of relief when he spoke and knew that his words would be communicated efficiently and accurately, and it was in the parents’ faces as they gazed at their tiny baby through a mess of cords and monitors. The beauty of language was also in Jesse’s smile of a job well done. My classroom lessons had been radically transposed to real life, where they belonged.
Perfection may be an unattainable goal, but that shouldn’t stop us from giving language study our all. The merits of the many hours of Speak! classes in addition to the value of years of personal study on Jesse’s part shone through with every success, failure, attempt, and teachable moment. Working with Jesse, seeing his passion for excellence and his diligent study, and learning from him these valuable lessons of courage and determination has changed my perspective on teaching forever. Now, I look forward to working with future students, and seeing how language study can transform their lives, as it has changed Jesse’s and mine.
About the Tutor: Judith K. Lang Hilgartner
|Kristin is a third year PhD student specializing in Early Modern Peninsular and Transatlantic studies. In spring 2012, she defended her M.A. thesis, “La salvación del otro: la representación de raza y religión en los autos sacramentales de Pedro Calderón de la Barca” as part of the completion of her degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This project epitomized many of her research interests including the study of Golden Age theatre, religious studies, and issues of race and identity. Kristin hopes her future research projects will be informed by a distinctly interdisciplinary flavor, as she is a Jewish Studies Graduate Fellow since fall 2013 and continues to have a heart for contemporary and colonial Latin American studies. Additionally, Kristin is interested in promoting educational opportunities for students that come from disadvantaged households, as evidenced in her project entitled, “Outreach to Inspire”, associated with the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship that she received to study and research in Quito, Ecuador. She has taught Spanish and English at primary and secondary schools as well as the four required levels of Spanish at UNCG and UVa. Her linguistic interests include teaching pedagogy, translation, and interpretation. Her other languages include French and Latin. To see her philosophy of teaching, click here.
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