“Papers for the Hands:” Foreign language instruction should review its goals

When my mom announced our upcoming trip to Mexico, I was the most excited of my family. For the first time ever, I would be able to try out my (admittedly limited) Spanish skills on a native population in a foreign country. Would it be any different from reading and speaking along with the nerdy teenagers from my “¡Bienvenidos!” textbooks? Was I ready to bargain with merchants en Español? Or would I fall flat on my face in a cloud of bilingual humiliation?

Fast forward a few weeks to spring break. I sat in the Yucatan sun, still dripping wet from swimming in two Mexican underground pools called “cenotes.” My face was a vivid red color from sunburn (good thing nobody takes pictures of people on vacation, right?), and my family and I were just sitting down to a fantastic Mayan-style lunch. The scene couldn’t have been more perfect…except for the chicken juice making a red streak as it dripped a quick line down my arm: as I have already admitted, I am not the most photogenic vacationer.

There were no napkins in sight, and Felipe, the server nearest to our family, didn’t speak a lick of English. It was my time to shine.

“¡Señor!” I beckoned as the weathered Mexican man turned round to face me. “¿Es posible tener los papeles para los manos?”

My broken sentence can be translated as, “Mr., it’s possible to have papers for the hands?”

Yep. Doesn’t sound too hot in either language. I could feel the stares of the other tourist kids as they judged my handling of the situation and general lack of hand-mouth coordination. But they weren’t the ones being brought a lovely stack of napkins, were they? Victory.

The experience gave me a new appreciation for my education in Spanish levels I, II and III. Those semesters were enough to keep me safe in Mexico and supplied with more “paper for the hands” than I could ever need. They also gave me a few hurried conversations with vendors who wanted me to purchase one of their lovely ceramic cats. (But for veinte American dólares, I couldn’t bring myself to commit).

All that said, I have some advice for those who develop the Spanish language curriculum: give up the ghost! You will never, ever teach high school Americans to speak like Mexico City locals. Once we’ve grown out of childhood, our brains simply can’t cut it. But, alas, teens are still being instructed in the precise nuances of the Spanish language: no accent is too insignificant, no “erre” should be left un-slurred, and heaven forbid we let a verb tense slip away.

Forget numbered verb systems and headache-inducing charts of commands. Teach phrases! Teach vocabulary! The goal in every foreign language conversation should be just to get the point across. That’s why I was proud of even my botched napkin sentence.

Immersion helps as well, like the time I spent in Señor Foust’s class reading Teen Vogue and watching Dora in Spanish. Billboards along the highway were a lot clearer because I had read similar ad campaigns, and I swear I heard the ghost of Dora in our tour guide’s command to “¡Vámonos!”

Ken Stewart, an American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) teacher of the year and Spanish teacher at Chapel Hill high school, agrees. He says that immersion programs are “the next best thing to study abroad.”

Bottom line? Foreign language classes are helpful, but would work even better if they employed a more relaxed approach. Students should be taught that they don’t have to be perfect, just communicate the best they can. And if all else fails, they should leave the chicken grease on their hands and start a new conversation.

– By Adrianne Cleven