Why Language is Vital to our Global Learning

By: Sarah Hirschorn (Online Editor-in-Chief)

Foreign language has been the pinnacle of global learning for years at Sharon High School and in school systems across the country.

Language teachers at SHS share their experiences with learning a new language and how they became the staff members we know and love. The teachers explain that they continued language learning because of its immense purpose in their lives and on a global scale. The foreign language department, run by Dr. Dahlen, at Sharon High consists of 5 foreign languages: Spanish, French, Chinese, Latin, and American Sign Language.

Dr. Albanese, the American Sign Language teacher at SHS, shares her language story. “I began learning Spanish in High School. I took it for four years, however; I was not very talented at it.  I learned American Sign Language after I graduated from college 30 years ago. I also took ASL in graduate school while I earned my Master’s degree in Deaf Education. I also took many ASL classes outside of college as well and I continue to take them today,” Albanese said.

“When I became a teacher of the Deaf I loved learning and communicating using American Sign Language. It made me happy to learn about another group of people and their culture. As time went on I developed a circle of Deaf friends that are an amazing part of my life,” Albanese added.

Dr. A also reflects on the personal experiences that have shaped her appreciation for ASL. “By learning American Sign Language (ASL) I have been fortunate to have some amazing experiences and interactions with wonderful people. With ASL I have learned to not take my access to language for granted. As a hearing person I would previously assume that everyone around me understood what was happening or what is being said when this is not true,” Albanese said.  

“People who are Deaf or have any hearing loss do not always have access to information. I explain to my students that knowing ASL will help build a bridge between the Deaf and hearing worlds and one never knows when you may be able to communicate with another individual who might not be aware of information that is being shared,” Dr. A added.

Dr. A says she was excited to have the opportunity to teach ASL at Sharon High and is grateful for all the students who sign up for her class. “I always thank my students for making the decision to take ASL because they have the ability to make an impact. The decision to learn another language means that you are willing to learn about something outside of your comfort zone,” Albanese said.

“You may make mistakes and you might not say or sign a word correctly, but the fact that you are putting forth the effort means that you care and want to make a connection with another person or group of people,” Dr. A added.

Dr. Albanese also adds that there are always challenges to learning a new language and that American Sign Language is not an exception.“Learning a new language can be tricky.  It takes a lot of practice and sometimes it can be difficult to stay in the target language that you are learning. When learning ASL it is important to keep one’s voice off while signing.  This helps to create stronger input into the brain and helps the signer to remember the signs better. This can be difficult at times because one will naturally go back to “mouthing” or whispering the words,” Albanese said.

Dr. A encourages students learning a new language to take chances and take advantage of opportunities that will help you practice the language with native speakers. “They will welcome you and be supportive of you learning their language. Think about a time when you met someone learning your native language, it is exciting to help someone in that position. You will be welcomed in the same way.  You just might make someone’s day a little brighter!” Albanese concluded.

Señor Brillant, one of the many Spanish Teachers at Sharon High, also explains his journey in language learning. “I began learning some Italian when I was younger due to older family members speaking it in front of me at various family gatherings.  That sparked my interest in languages and I formally began learning Spanish in the 6th grade. I continued my Spanish studies throughout high school and college as well as formally studying French for a few semesters,” Brillant said.

“I found languages fascinating and it is a subject that I loved.  I enjoyed exploring the world and meeting new people in various locations. I always liked being able to communicate with someone else who I normally wouldn’t be able to without knowing their native language,” Brillant added.

Señor Brillant also commends his students for taking a chance and learning a foreign language. “As a language teacher, I am so proud of my students’ ability to communicate and it’s a joy to see them gain confidence with new language skills both in class and in the many trips and experiences they are able to participate in with their knowledge of Spanish. None of these experiences would be possible without the knowledge of another language,” Brillant added.

Señor Brillant also adds that one of the greatest challenges when learning a foreign language is confidence. “In my experience, most people are afraid to sound wrong or think they can’t do it.  Speaking a foreign (world) language is a skill that requires time and patience just like learning a sport,” Brillant said.

“With practice, one can see tremendous progress and acquire the confidence to interact with native speakers. I always tell my students that it’s okay to make mistakes and that most people will be appreciative that you’re trying to speak to them in their native language,” Brillant added.

“It’s pretty clear that when you can communicate with someone in their native language, the messages resonate and the conversations are more engaging.  Becoming globally aware is a very complex process, but without knowledge of the native language, it’s more difficult to appreciate and respect other cultures due to a lack of understanding and the need to translate ideas,” Brillant concluded.

Señora Theberge, another Spanish teacher at SHS, shares how the process of learning Spanish has changed her life from high school up until now. “I began learning Spanish during my freshman year of high school. To be honest, at first, it was just a course that needed to be taken,” Theberge said.

“However, in one of my classes I was paired up with a native speaker and throughout the semester I had to meet with him and converse on a variety of topics. I found this to be an incredible experience and was proud of myself for pursuing something that at times was challenging and intimidating,” Theberge added.

Theberge says that learning a second language forced her to make decisions about how in-depth she wanted to study Spanish, and how she wanted to continue her education.

“My path to becoming a language teacher had a lot of twists and turns.  I did not decide to dedicate myself to language teaching until after I graduated college and was working in the field of social work,” Theberge said.

Theberge explains the circumstances in which she became a high school Spanish teacher after graduating from college. “The high school that I attended was in need of a Spanish teacher late in the summer and reached out to me to see if I would be interested. My Spanish teacher in my senior year of high school knew that I had traveled to Spain and had some experience with the language.  They reached out to me and I took a leap of faith and found myself a few weeks later as a Spanish teacher at the high school level,” Thegerge added.

“I had participated in a study abroad experience during my junior year of college and had fallen in love with both the language and the culture but was not exactly sure how I was going to incorporate all of that into a profession and when this opportunity came along it seemed like a perfect fit,” Theberge said.

Theberge adds how some of the biggest obstacles of learning a foreign language come from how you view your own abilities. “Confidence and our belief in ourselves play a huge role in almost anything we do. Acquiring a new language pushes you out of your comfort zone at times and challenges you to find opportunities to engage with the language. Making the most out of every presented opportunity to be exposed to comprehensible language is really important.  Being dedicated and motivated are two very important aspects as well. Finding content that you are engaged and motivated by can also be an obstacle,” Theberge added.

Theberge concludes how learning a new language can expand your global awareness by teaching you how to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. “It [language learning] allows you to understand the various cultures that language represents.  It affords you the ability to develop a deeper understanding of other cultures, including traditions and customs. By learning another language you are able to establish relationships that open doors between countries and cultures that allow for meaningful work to take place and deepens the understanding that we are all connected,” Theberge said.

Madame Turner, one of the French teachers at Sharon High, shares how she knew she wanted to teach French since middle school. “I started learning another language in 8th grade and my school had an exploratory program that was a trimester of Latin, a trimester of Spanish, and a trimester of French. I was absolutely in love with Latin the first trimester. Spanish was fine but the teacher bored me to tears. The first day of the French trimester, I went home and told my parents that I was going to be a French teacher,” Turner said.

“The problem was that at the end of the year we had to choose what language we wanted to take for 9th grade. So I remember very distinctly, sitting with my guidance counselor and saying to her, ‘I want to take French and Latin’, and she said, ‘Well, we don’t do that.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She told me it was going to be overwhelming to learn both languages at the same time. So I just pushed and pushed and pushed and she said ‘Okay, take both.’ I took four years of Latin and four years of French in high school,” Turner added.

Learning new languages has impacted Madame Turner’s ability to think on more diverse levels in terms of spoken language, and in ways that are hard to explain and are not necessarily tangible. “I always think languages are like a big game of Scrabble or Boggle. Like a big puzzle that you are trying to put together. I think it is important to have critical thinking skills that you don’t necessarily realize are helping you. You are moving your neurons in ways that help you think on a larger scale,” Turner said.

“Knowing different languages has helped me make connections with people that I never would have been able to connect with if I didn’t speak their language. Like sometimes it’s just a server in a cafe that I just happen to strike up a conversation with. But I also have several other stories about long term friendships that have developed because I was able to speak another language,” Turner added.

Madame Turner also explains how speaking a common language can create a bridge between people from all over the world. “When you can speak to a person in their language, you can understand them more; like who they are, about their culture, about their lives, how they experience prejudice and racism, and all of their phobias,” Turner said.

“If you want to create that human contact, you realize that being X of what people are afraid of isn’t scary because this is just another human being. To be able to communicate with that person makes that human connection easier and if everybody could erase some of their fears of the other than we would be in a much better place,” Turner added.

Madame Turner emphasizes that learning a new language is still tricky and that perfection is not the goal. “You don’t even have to be perfect in the language, but making the attempt in the language puts another person in a place where they think, ‘Oh you care enough about me to attempt to connect with me in my language’. That is a whole level of respect that you can’t find anywhere else,” Turner said.

“It takes patience. It takes a lot of work. It takes real commitment. And it takes willing to be vulnerable and be willing to make mistakes. Conjugating verbs in a book is not going to do anything for you. But to put all of the pieces that you learned together, into sentences is hard. It’s through your mistakes or somebody correcting,” Turner added.

“You have to be willing to feel embarrassed, whether it’s in front of your peers or you’re in a foreign country. It is understanding how people live. Why do people wear certain clothing why do people eat certain foods? The biggest piece is breaking down stereotypes and understanding that we are all humans in the human race,” Turner said.

Madame Turner advises students to branch out and give themselves time to practice and utilize the language they’re learning. “Be patient and try to find a way to use it. Because if you don’t use it it doesn’t feel real and it goes away. Listen to music in the language you study, look at some news reports there are tons of sites where you can see bilingual news reports. Don’t just think of it as, ‘These are just words that I’m saying or reading,’” Turner said.

“Try to find a way to interact with them [the words] online and discover new things about other cultures. Try to go someplace! It will make your language better and it will make you a better person,” Turner concluded.

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