An Unexpected Journey to Becoming Bilingual

By Carol Ann George PhD

I have always been a passionate rebel of sorts when it came to teaching English or Spanish. Grammar was never the way. I believed most people want to be able to actually speak and interact in a second language, not just learn ABOUT its parts. Throughout a long career as a language educator, the question has always been the same. Why is it that after years of high school and college courses, “short cutting” with translation apps, online “quickie” courses, webinars and podcasts, and visits to Cancun as a study abroad stint, (lame as that may sound), more Americans are not able to actually speak substantial Spanish?

Before addressing this haunting question, I must reach back in time to what it was like for me as a 25 year old adult, living in Mexico for the first time, and married to a Mexican National. All I had in my holster were those same high school and college course, a linguistics, a M.Ed., and a lot of motivation to learn! Oh, and I must not forget, I was also motivated by a whole lot of “love”.

It all started with our family move to Toluca, a high altitude industrial city southwest of Mexico City with a snow-capped volcano. After the expected initial cultural and linguistic shock, I knew I had to shift into gear and learn to communicate to survive. I watched Mexican soaps, visited open air markets, and made friends with native speakers. I became director of English, at an Ivy League, multi-campus, national university in Mexico. The students became my teachers, correcting my Spanish, and engaging me in conversations that would take me to that place of bilingual bliss! Interacting with colleagues and writing in Spanish also boosted my Spanish skills. Living in immersion, working in an academic setting, and interacting daily with native speakers, I was able to learn Spanish in just eight months. Necessity is the mother of invention. And boy did I do a lot of linguistic inventing! (Once I asked for a “pastel de moco” instead of “mocha” (Booger cake instead of chocolate!)! Well, that drew a lot of laughs for a lot of years thereafter.

No doubt, mastering Spanish opened many professional and personal doors I continue to enjoy. However, it did take a toll on my sense of identity in a way. Sporting my Lebanese American, identity, I was at times taken for a native Mexican. I was greeted in Spanish, and assumed Mexican (and Spanish fluent) because my Middle Eastern appearance just didn’t check out to their media generated images of Americans. I was even asked if I was a “pocha”…a Mexican American with limited Spanish and cultural knowledge. Many were not patient with me because they felt I should know my language well, even if it was not, in fact my ethnic, heritage language. When out with my Caucasian-looking, expat friends, my identity was also in question. While they were often pampered, it was assumed I was their driver, or translator. They never imagined me as a native speaker of English or an American citizen. When they asked if my parents were Mexican, I would reply, “no, Lebanese”. This usually just left them a bit confused, however not too convinced.

In spite of the occasional blow I may have felt to my identity, these “inconveniences”, could never cast shade on my onward march to bilingualism. As a “talented language learner” (found out this was a true phenomenon) I was able to “chat it up” with Mexican immigration officers (to the terror of my sweat-beaded husband) without being flagged as a foreigner with a gringo accent! That was a true test of my Spanish mastery!

After a family move to the state of Chihuahua, I continued as Director of English with the same university, and eventually opened my own language institute once NAFTA became a reality and corporate training in languages and bi-cultural business was in extreme demand. Designing training and delivering in the “maquiladoras” became my full-time activity.

Later, I returned to the U.S. to complete my PhD in Foreign and Second Language Education and I continued to be approached by people who “always wanted to learn Spanish”. Americans who had gone through the system, but who had not been able to acquire functional skills in Spanish. Later, as I assumed my tenure as a university professor, I began to interact in the local community and was intrigued at the many business owners and locals who expressed the need for functional Spanish to interact with employees, clients, and their community. But who would have predicted this booming need for Spanish skills in Southern Chester County, Pennsylvania? I certainly had no idea.

The Mushroom industry in Southern Chester County, known as “the mushroom capital of the world”, is located near our campus, quite near the heart of Amish country. For generations, this area of Pennsylvania has been home to countless Mexicans from Toluca, Puebla, and from the state of Guanajuato. This industry has drawn so many Spanish speakers that satellite services have had to provide extensive support necessitating the use of real Spanish in virtually all sectors of the local economy. As in other parts of the US, there is a concentration of these workers supporting our construction and hospitality industries, with many working in the local banks, stores, restaurants, schools and hospitals.

Early on, I was introduced to the owner of a construction company who commissioned me to design and deliver a Spanish course that would allow him to manage his construction and landscaping teams. He humbly felt that this would demonstrate his intent to reach out to them as a show of respect, and gratitude for their hard work.  Although he was into his 70’s, he was highly committed. He became an “older adult language learner” (OALL) and the subject of a case study, which was eventually published at Duquesne University as part of a regional conference’s proceedings.

Unlike most research and literary studies, this case study was unconventional. It used Spanish without the use of accent marks and did not highlight traditional rules of grammar. Conference attendees questioned its legitimacy, but I persisted believing it could motivate and satisfy Spanish learners regardless of age. In the past, my own learning experience, and academic preparation, demanded that I question old school grammar. Conducting this study allowed me to do so, using conversation core building (CCB) and pivot structures to advance the spoken Spanish of my older adult language learner (OALL).

As a result, “Painless Spanish”, a signature training module, was created, and was punctuated with “bundling for fluency”. Bundling or “Sandwich Spanish” allows communication while respecting the nuances of culture and etiquette. Training modules are guided by a detailed needs assessment that generates materials, and target busy, working adults who seek high retention in a short time. A great deal of preparation is necessary to pinpoint the desired language goals on the infinity of language possibilities.  Learning the consonant exceptions, and the five, “loyal friend vowels” are staples to approximating native Spanish and acquiring an accent that would make one “feel good” about speaking Spanish. The goal for success always leans on breaking the vicious cycle; “I can’t speak, so I don’t, so I don’t improve”.

As I look back on those early years of love in Toluca, Mexico, the business of language training in the maquiladoras of NAFTA’s Chihuahua, and my tenure as a professor in the vibrant, multicultural ambience of Chester County, Pa, I can only feel gratitude for being in those places, in that order, with countless rich and diverse encounters. When I started out during those early years in Mexico, I would have never imagined such an opportune and exceptional journey into bilingual territory. One that crossed international lines, intersecting academics, business, and other industries with native speakers. As I continue to spread my passion for the Spanish language, I marvel at this unique fortune. An unexpected life- of course, “Que suertuda”!

And I wouldn’t change a thing. No, nada!