Connecting With Other Cultures Through Service-Learning Project

Posted on: Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013 by Brent Treash

The fall semester of 2012 at Emory & Henry College was a very exciting one for me. Enrolled in Spanish 201, I had the opportunity to participate in a unique community service project. As part of our class assignment, the other students and I were given the opportunity to work with Hispanic immigrants who were interested in learning the English language.

Professor Alma Ramirez wanted her students to have the opportunity to apply the Spanish skills we were learning in class. Studies have shown that just because a student learns the grammar rules in a class setting, he or she may not have the skills to successfully communicate with a native speaker. Similar to the English language, Spanish has grammar rules and exceptions to the rules that are more often learned with experience. With support from the Appalachian Center for Community Service, Professor Ramirez helped to organize a class community service project in which each student was assigned a Hispanic community partner. The idea was that the students could help their partners learn English while applying the Spanish they were learning in class.

My assigned community partner was Maria, age 49, who is a native of Mexico. I met with her for an hour once or twice a week. Our lessons focused on themes, such as libraries, cooking, the alphabet, or the days and months of the year. Our lessons consisted of reviewing vocabulary before moving to a new theme.
Many times Maria had questions as we studied together. How do I address my boss at work? How do I ask for days off from work? How do I borrow books from the library? Her questions often directed our path of study for the day and helped me to think of things that would be helpful for her to know, one of which was how to acquire a card from the local library.

An added bonus of the service assignment was meeting some of Maria’s family, including her five-year-old grandson, Anthony. I also learned about traditions she brought with her from Vera Cruz, Mexico.
This experience has taught me about the barriers of language. I hadn’t realized how difficult it is to be surrounded by people who speak a different language until I spent a month in a community in Kenya where Swahili is the primary language. People carried on conversations right in front of me and I had no idea what they were saying. Immigrants to the United States are often disadvantaged because of their inability to comprehend English. But, the immigrants are not the only ones deprived of a learning experience. Americans who only speak English miss out on learning about other fascinating cultures because of their own lack of comprehension.

By learning to be accepting of other cultures and ways of life, I have discovered so many new and wonderful things. By participating in this service-learning project, I have greatly increased my Spanish vocabulary, discovered new traditions that I want to apply to my own life, and made a new friend. Maria and I still meet on occasion to learn from each other.