An Amazing Present

photo: Julia Casanova’s English class at the Ramón Carande High School. / CATHERINA OCHOA 

ESPAÑOL / download PDF

With 50% OF European speaking more than one language and 24 officially recognized languages within the European Union (EU) alone, learning a second school language is more than an educational asset. A secondary English teacher in Spain, a High School English teacher in the U.S. and a father of three young children exemplify this commitment to helping a new generation acquire what is understood as “an important present.” For students, learning another language creates more opportunities.

ON THIS DAY, the life of The Ramon Carande High School, located in the neighborhood of Tiro de Linea in Seville, hums with a unique energy upon the arrival of a visitor. Hallways full of students walk to their next class, students talk with friends in the cafeteria and pupils sit at their desks waiting for their next lesson to start. “We are doing two pieces of work,” says Julia. “Educating the students, as well as helping them personally.” Julia has her work cut out for her.

Her students sit, all expecting a normal day; what they receive is different. “Today we have a visitor, a student from the United States,” she announces to the inquisitive faces. “And she doesn’t speak any Spanish, so you have to talk to her in English.” Shock, panic, interest, excitement – all readily displayed on their faces. The room erupts into a wave of emotion, revealing more than these students realize. “Why is she here if she doesn’t speak Spanish?” exclaims one student. In this English class, the learning process is more taxing than in any other class they may have. Conversations are slow; the students rely on Julia for direction on how to communicate with the woman standing before them.

“You see a wide range of extremes here,” Julia explains. “Some students act out because they don’t understand, and others over-exaggerate because that is how the language appears to them.” Although keeping their attention seems difficult at times, the activities introduced in the classroom have a strong impact on the students.

DSC01820 copiaphoto: Iván Sarita and Ángel Rodríguez in class at Ramón Carande High School. / CATHERINA OCHOA

Today, the focus is on reading skills, with each student picking a different article to practice reading aloud. They hold their books so close to their faces that one would think the words might jump off the pages and into their minds. “Ten paciencia con nosotros,” another girl, Eva, pleads. Eva Marquez, one of the quietest students, with her furrowed brow deep in concentration, tries to understand the visitor. Every word is translated in their minds like a puzzle; creating an image with the pieces they have been given seems difficult.

Yet with all her hard work, Julia enjoys some occasional rewards. “I had one student come to school about a month ago who told me that he gave directions to a tourist in English. You could see how proud he was of himself,” she explains. “I feel very proud when they tell me they communicated outside of school.”

DSC01766photo: Daniel Gómez and José Simón Ángel in class at Ramón Carande High School. / CATHERINA OCHOA

“It’s all about exposure,” says English-as-a-second-language teacher and native Iowan, Janiece Ochoa. Going on her 24th year of teaching in the Des Moines School District in the United States, Janiece is no stranger to the challenges with which Julia’s students are confronted. At Hoover High School, students have to overcome more than just language obstacles; they also have to deal with their personal lives while trying to graduate on time.

Being able to speak the language is the ultimate goal for everyone in Janiece’s classroom. “When you see them make progress, they grow up. For them, a little step is satisfactory, and you feel very grateful for what you are doing,” she states. These experiences that Janiece has seen in her classroom are also reflected in the moments that Julia’s determined students have had.

Even though students are taught the basics of a different language in school, “The quality of the language you obtain is that of a survival language”, says Janiece, “It’s enough to communicate, but not enough to immerse into a culture.” Full immersion is what Raul Garcia Caballero has tried so hard to accomplish at home with his three children.

“I learned the language but I didn’t master it,” Raul recalls, “so I knew that if I wanted them to learn it properly, they would have to do more.” Raul has been speaking English to his children since they were born, starting with his eldest daughter, Maria, ten, followed by his second daughter, Paula, seven, and his son, Raul, five. The countless hours he has spent helping his children have brought the family closer together in a way they never could have imagined, and the trio appears to be the best of friends. They play together and dance together, but most importantly, they practice their English together. Sitting by the stairs on the first floor of their home is a small table covered with English books, intended as a make-shift book club set up by Raul for friends and their children to enjoy learning together, like his family does.

DSC01831_webphoto: María, Raúl and Paula García working at home. / CATHERINA OCHOA

Near this table rests a wide bookshelf with an even split of both Spanish and English books, with popular English titles like The Magic Treehouse, to Spanish classics like Don Quijote. In their playroom are board games which help in the learning process of grammar and sentence structure
in the English language. “I like to learn English,” Paula says, “because it is fun to learn another language.” Their favorite game is “Silly Sentences,” a word game that requires the players to create a sentence using all the pieces they randomly draw, like “the pink kangaroo jumps over the big blue tomato.” One sentence at a time, these young minds are brightening up their future with the precious gift of acquiring a second language. •