I have a secret. Believe it or not, I speak Spanish. Not a surprise to you? Oh, well I guess it’s not a secret I keep from everyone. In fact, this is a secret kept only from a specific group of 200 individuals- my students at the colegio. My school last year wasn’t explicit about it, but this year I was clearly told on day one: in front of the students, I am not to utter a word of Spanish. As far as they’re concerned, I know nothing but English.
This often creates some entertaining situations. A student will come to ask me to translate something, only for another to remind him, “¡Ella no habla español!” Duh. I stand there and smile, pretending to have no idea what they’re saying.
For the most part, the fact that my kids think I only speak English is fantastic for their education. Since I started with these kids in October I have truly seen them develop in their communication skills. If they know that they can’t revert back to Spanish to get their point across to me, it is much easier for me to encourage them to be innovative and think more critically about how to make themselves understood. When Carolina didn’t know the word tangerine, she described it as a tiny orange. When Manuel wanted to tell me why his arm is in a cast, he used a combination of gestures, drawings, and the vocabulary fall, pain, and doctor to demonstrate exactly how he fell off a stair railing and landed on his arm, while I corrected his verbs to past tense. It’s amazing to see what these kids are capable of (linguistically, that is, not breaking bones). They might not be using grammatically perfect sentences, and they might not know all the vocabulary for what they want to say, but they can get their point across, which in the end is what matters.
There are also some draw backs to not being able to speak to my students in their native language. The above examples of kids stepping outside the box are great, but it only really works for the more outgoing students. They are aware that they’re making oodles of mistakes, but these particular ones have decided that’s okay, they just want to participate in class and communicate with me. Unfortunately not everyone is that brave. As a language learner myself I can sympathize. You have to set aside your pride and put yourself out there, willing to makes mistakes and potentially embarrass yourself. For some students, this means recoiling into a shell and not talking to the English teacher at all, because the safety net of Spanish isn’t there. For many, calling on them to read aloud is just about the worst punishment I can give them.
Keeping up this secret is sometime difficult. When there are no students around I speak to the other teachers in Spanish, and we sometimes find ourselves forgetting to switch to English when students come around. But what can be even more difficult is hiding my understanding when I’m surrounded by Spanish. I can’t help the way I react to certain things, that I laugh at something funny, that I gasp at something shocking. A few students are slowly catching on to my secret, and some have even called me out.
“So you do speak Spanish!”
“No, no,” my coworker assured the clever eleven year old, “Amy’s just nodding her head and pretending like she understands.”
One thing I’ve learned for certain, bilingual life is never boring.