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home : opinion : perspectives

8/15/2013 2:15:00 PM
REFLECTION
More than a second language
BY CAITLIN OWEN


(Editor's note: Catie is a student at the Long Trail School in Dorset, Vermont, and a parishioner at St. Mary's Church in Granville in the Albany Diocese. She just returned from a Spanish language immersion camp and wrote about her experience.)

Language is critical to all people. As Catholics, we need language in order to listen to the Scriptures at Mass and give verbal responses. We also need language to communicate with God - and the Masses happening in your local parish this Sunday will be similar to Masses taking place in countries like Armenia, El Salvador and Poland.

The difference? Language.

As a new alumnus of the Middlebury Monterey Language Academy in Vermont, I now realize that language immersion is the best way to learn a language. Many students take a second language in high school and can master verb conjugations and memorize vocabulary lists, but never get the chance to actually apply their knowledge to real-life interactions.

MMLA does complete language immersion for four weeks. After students sign a "language pledge" at the beginning, the only words they will hear, speak and write for those four weeks will be in the target language.

After reviewing the options of Mandarin, German, French and Spanish, I chose Spanish because I have taken Spanish classes since middle school, but still could not speak the language. The program for high school students is held at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont.

Upon check-in, I was given a room assignment and was asked to turn in all my electronic devices, including my cell phone. A teenager can survive an entire month without a cell phone: It turned out the transition was harder for the parents than it was for the kids.

Students came from all over the globe to attend this language camp - from countries like South Africa and Singapore and states like North Carolina and Texas. All levels of language proficiency were present; some students knew nothing but "hola" on their first day, while others were already forming sentences in different tenses.

Regardless of our cultural backgrounds and the language gap between different levels, we all had to find a way to communicate. Hand gestures and facial expressions were a popular method the first few days. After that, our elective classes in dancing, acting, cooking and art helped to evoke language abilities we did not know we had.

For three hours of the day, we went to academic classes at our levels. At the end of the day, we were given free time to socialize and practice the language. We were allowed to go to the gym or the pool during our free time, or play a game of soccer with friends. As a result, many of the students felt that, in the future, college would not be such a culture shock.

More than any other lesson, the Middlebury Monterey Language Academy teaches that it is OK to make mistakes, because that's the only way we learn. Until I attended MMLA, my knowledge of Spanish was limited to what was written on a sheet of paper in a classroom. After speaking Spanish for an entire month during class, at mealtimes and with friends, I now know how to apply my knowledge to the real world.

When the day comes that I am traveling in a foreign country whose native language I do not understand, I will surely use the outlandish but necessary hand gestures that I learned at MMLA in order to communicate. There are more similarities than differences amid the cultures of our world.



Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, September 23, 2013
Article comment by: Doreen Kelly

Very well written- poignant and informative! Great piece!



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