Teaching for social purposes

Paulina Montaldo, Ursuline High School Spanish teacher.  Youngstown State University Adjunct Faculty

With the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, students compare and contrast so many differences among the Spanish-speaking countries. Although they all speak the same language the diversity in the culture only enriches each other by making them so unique and equal at the same time.

The differences between every single Hispanic country and every country around the world can separate us, create controversy or conflict, but at the same time, for us, foreign language teachers can be a valuable tool to create a more just, tolerant, and respectful world.

When our students register in our classes and decide to study a foreign language, most of them due to a requirement, they must leave our classroom with a more open and tolerant mindset that understands that diversity only enriches them and makes them a better person, a citizen of the world.

Something as simple as a greeting can be confusing – one kiss in Chile, two in Spain; shake hands here, but bow there; use a firm handshake or a light grip; make eye contact or avoid eye contact. A simple greeting could be misinterpreted if we had not known the customs of the person we were greeting.  Of course, now, in the time of COVID, a smile or an elbow or shoe shake fulfills the purpose.

There are many examples of different practices in different cultures, but as differences are greater, misconceptions can create misunderstanding, hard feelings, and separation.

With learning another language we are not only learning to communicate with the correct words and expressions but also to empathize with a different culture, in a world that needs more understanding and respect for each other.  That learning appeals to our solidarity, tolerance and understanding of the various ways in which things can take place, and to realize that our way is not the only way. 

At the beginning of this school year, I asked the students why they were studying a foreign language. As the level of the class was higher and the age of the students older, I could see that although they started by taking the class for a requirement for college, many of them stayed because the requirement turned into a love for a different culture that they were passionate about, and that had already given them satisfaction such as the time they were able to help someone order food, find what they were looking for in the store, or even better, made new friends. 

The language class has become an element of teaching for social purposes. When we understand   differences, we become more tolerant and respectful of them.

An important part of our lessons on how to master a second language is the challenge to confront misconceptions and stereotypes.  By cultivating empathy in our classrooms, our students learn about differences, and we are doing our part as an agent for social change.

Difference is neither inherently worse nor better, just different, and when we teach our students about different cultures, we are reinforcing values to be tolerant and respectful.

Let the differences be, that they do nothing but enrich our lives and experiences, create a consciousness of tolerance and respect, and embrace diversity.

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