We met Russ and Emily in front of the Palacio de los Deportes, just across the street from my house. Oscar, my 14-year-old “host brother,” was to be our indispensable and knowledgeable guide to the school, as navigating Spanish streets is well-nigh impossible.
“Do you know how old these kids are going to be?” Russ asked Oscar as we walked.
“Around 12 years old,” said Oscar.
Twelve sounded like a good age to all of us. About two weeks ago, my host mom approached me with the idea of participating in a “Spanglish” program she had organized for young children, through an organization that’s known as a Banco de tiempo, a “time bank.” Essentially, the time bank is a system of exchange in which one day someone will offer some kind of service or class, for free, with the knowledge that on some other say, someone will repay the deed with their own free session. It’s pretty neat.
My mom’s idea was to hold a free language interchange for children at the most basic level of English education. My job was to find and bring some friends from Temple, so that we could serve as ESL teachers for the duration of the session.
“These kids know next to no English,” my mom stressed to me, “You need to speak slowly and clearly, and only in basic phrases like, ‘What is your name,’ ‘Where are you from,’ and things like that.”
No problem. I’d done language exchanges before, and I grew up taking care of my young cousins at family gatherings. Put those two skills together, and you’ve got the perfect man for the job.
The four of us arrived at the school, and Oscar led us inside. We were greeted by the sight of parents diligently hanging Carnaval decorations, and a small herd of children running amok through any and all open spaces in the room.
I turned to Emily. “I don’t think these kids are 12.”
She shook her head.
My host mom welcomed us with a broad smile. After the brief round of customary introductions, she gave us a quick rundown of the next hour.
“We’re getting ready for Carnaval,” she explained, “but the kids are also learning about different parts of the world.” She gestured to a paper-machie globe hanging from the ceiling. “After you all introduce yourselves, you can talk a little about where you’re from. The kids are very excited to meet you.”
So we arranged a small circle of chairs. All seated, there were about thirteen kids, although “seated” might be a bit too generous.
All squirming, there were about thirteen kids—each six- or seven-years-old.
If any of us were at a loss to start, it was Russ who came out strong. “So, we’re all here to learn English, right?”
“Who here wants to learn English?!”
Hands were raised with gusto.
We decided to start be teaching phrases used to introduce oneself, but expecting twelve other young children to pay attention while you ask one for his name quickly proved fruitless.
“We don’t we split up into smaller groups?” I suggested.
Once seated with my group of four, I started in small. We went around the more intimate circle again, giving names. We also introduced ourselves by offering handshakes, which caused one small girl to look at me blankly like the faun in the first Chronicles of Narnia movie.
“What can you say in English?” I asked them.
Hands shot up again. I gestured to the boy on my left, hopefully awaiting his answer.
“I know how to say ‘yes.’”
After that, the civilized method of raising hands was abandoned.
“I can say ‘cow‘!”
“I can say ‘hair‘!”
I quieted them down. “You kids know a lot of vocabulary! But do you know any grammar?”
In unison, they vigorously shook their heads, beaming at me like this was the best news I could possibly be receiving at the moment.
“Well,” I said, “What would you like to learn?”
Truthfully, I think we covered bits of all of those things, but in the most meandering, round-about fashion possible. Most of the session consisted of the kids excitedly telling me the words they knew, and then quickly losing interest in the words I tried to teach them, words that they had just told me they wanted to learn. If I spent too long attempting to teach them a phrase in English, it would seem that something very interesting suddenly appeared just over my shoulder. But what was even more fascinating was how quickly their attention would snap back to me as soon as I returned to speaking in Spanish.
I don’t know how much of what we taught truly stuck, but I don’t think any of the three of us would call the session unsuccessful. Maybe it was just their boundless energy, but the kids never seemed to be bored. Even when the “teaching” session was over, and I gave up on trying to get four small kids to keep a globe in one fixed location, we were trading words as we chatted over snack. Plus, I got a huge confident boost, as none of the kids ever had a problem understanding my Spanish. By the end of the session, I had completely forgotten I was speaking a “foreign” language. And, though I can’t speak for the others, I was having fun teaching the kids.
I have such an immense respect for second-language teachers now, especially those who teach young children. To have the ability, and above all the patience, to take what to the student is empty, formless gibberish and turn it into systematic understanding and thought is so vitally important and unfortunately so rare.
My hat is off to every Spanish teacher and professor I’ve ever had. Without your hard work—work that, the more I think about it, should be impossible—I would not be here, traveling Spain and returning the favor with these young kids.