This article is from EF Global Citizen, Ginger W. following her experience on a Service Learning trip to Ecuador.
If you had asked me my thoughts on learning a language just a few years ago, I would have told you it was pointless. I sat through Spanish classes, year after year, gaining little but a few new vocabulary words every few weeks. “When would I ever need to know how to say raccoon in Spanish?” This subject was yet another boring class in school that seemingly had little application into my everyday life. With no practical time to use what I was learning for hours every week, what was the point?
I later discovered the importance of bilingualism on a service trip in the Chimborazo province of Ecuador, in the tiny community of San Miguel. Here, I worked alongside members of this community to build classrooms for a developing school. This school was for children in San Miguel who had previously needed to travel to the next town over, about an hour walk, just to attend primary school. Hearing about these children in need immediately called my attention, and so I set out to support in any way I could.
I traveled in a group into the tiny village, where we spent our days alongside members of the community–mixing cement, laying concrete bricks, painting ceiling tiles, and bearing the hot mountain sun for hours on end. I quickly realized that there was a language divide between our group and the people living in San Miguel. We were together but separated by language. Here we were, coming into their community as complete strangers, and we worked individually and quietly for the most part. We all kept to ourselves, for the most part, speaking in whispers in small groups in our respective languages.
This didn’t seem right to me. We were here to work together and build something magnificent. I couldn’t stop thinking about how guilty I felt–wasting my travel experience like this. Here I was, fortunate enough to be abroad, supporting a local community and fighting for the right to education, but I couldn’t even muster up the courage to talk to the people here? I was one of the only people who knew Spanish on the trip. It was my responsibility, I thought, as someone who had the tools to communicate in Spanish, to make connection and communication with the community in San Miguel a reality for my group. And that’s just what I did.
Although I certainly was no expert in the language, my shaky conjugations and questioning tone was just enough to get my point across to the community members in San Miguel. The experience was completely embarrassing at points, especially when I found myself butchering pronunciations and having to ask “¿Puede repetir eso?” (“Can you repeat that?”) after every seemingly lightning fast string of words exploded from their lips. But my struggles and errors never seemed to phase the people here. They understood, they smiled, and they applauded my efforts to communicate and learn.
This quickly had the exact effect I had hoped it would. The building site felt so different after we had begun talking to the people that lived there. I found myself becoming a leader, striking up conversations and acting as a translator for those of my friends that had no experience with Spanish. We asked questions, heard stories. These five-minute conversations changed us more than we ever could have believed. We were connected to the people here now. Through genuine conversations with the community on a daily basis, we developed a new sense of empathy, and we were better able to understand the role that the classrooms we were building would play in the community and in the local children’s futures.
We worked together, hauling sand and brick to build a future for the children of San Miguel. On our lunch breaks, we played pick up soccer with the children of San Miguel, losing to ten-year-olds every day and laughing throughout it all. My knowledge of Spanish helped me to better connect with the children and understand what they were fighting for and why. I learned that Guillermo wanted to be a doctor, Maria wanted to be an astronaut and Carlos wanted to be a professional soccer player. I understood their stories and I understood I was here not only to build a school but to also make sure that these kids could be whatever they wanted to be.
The countless times I went to school early because my mom forced me into Spanish club, the hours I spent studying for tests that I never thought I would really apply to my life, all made sense now. I had learned this language for a reason, for connection. It wasn’t about learning obscure vocabulary words–it was about knowing enough to be able to understand people. To be able to ask about their culture, way of life, traditions, and practices.
Language brought me closer to the people of San Miguel, whether it was them laughing at my broken Spanish or enjoying deeper conversations concerning their families, their aspirations and their hopes for the community we were working to build together. Spanish connected me, immersed me, and taught me so much that I could have never learned without it. And thanks to this, San Miguel school is up and running. Ready for students like Guillermo, Maria, and Carlos to start changing the world, one class at a time.
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