As I prepare for the beginning of a new school year, I know this question will come up at some point. Though the tone of voice that goes with that sort of whyyy is not my favorite, it’s a valid question. Why are we here? Why are we learning Spanish? Why do we have to learn a foreign language at all?
It’s something I ask myself, here and there. I thought about it today, a long tired day. By the end my brain was mush, and I could just hear the mistakes coming out, talking with my little ones at home. Is this worth it, really? Is it worth the extra tiredness, me stumbling here as I talk to a three-year-old?
When I look at my fresh-faced Spanish I class, I know what I’d like to say. I want to tell them, “This is magic.” It is magic, and life-altering. But of course I cannot say that. Even if I did, you can’t say something is magic anymore than you can tell someone chocolate cake is delicious. They must of course find out for themselves.
I think I killed the magic my first few years of teaching. We enjoyed each other, had fun, and did our best as we waded through the building blocks of pieces of grammar and vocabulary. But I started with the parts: the difficult, unwieldy rules of language, with all their exceptions and requirements. By the time we got to the beauty of it– the real stories and songs and people–many of my students had checked out. Perhaps they passed the tests. But Spanish had not become a part of them, the way things we love do.
So what do we say, these first few weeks? Why are we here, after all? I used to show a little PowerPoint on the first day of class. It spoke of the benefits of learning a second language, in the most pragmatic ways. By learning Spanish you can get better jobs, I told them. You can make more money. Your brain gets stronger and most resistant to Alzheimer’s. You can travel!
Most of those are perfectly good perks to learning a language, especially the traveling part. But what I wish I could make them understand is what a second language does for your soul. When I say travel, I’m not just picturing a fun vacation. I am thinking of the sort of travel that changes you. Even every Disney movie knows that money and success aren’t what drive us. We are at school, sitting in Spanish class, because it makes us a different sort of person. I am speaking Spanish to my kids because I think it will help them be wiser and kinder. The hope is that we grow in wisdom and virtue, that we acquire more empathy, more compassion, more concern for the world. The hope is that we become employers concerned about more than the bottom line, neighbors befriending the family down the street, and people who see that ours is not the only way.
This year, I’m not presenting a defense of Spanish the first day of class. I am not sure that anyone remembers anything from the first day, anyway, except how it felt. I’m saving it for a bit later, when we’ve had the chance for a story or two and music. Then we can ask, Why are we here?, and perhaps have something to say.