Spanish Learning Scenario:
Neither Here Nor There: Learning to Live Elsewhere

Author: Ginger Cline & Ricci Hatten
Level: Intermediate/Advanced

Interacting with and adapting to another culture is one of life’s great adventures, and it is an experience that is very real to an increasing number of Texas residents. In this scenario, students consider the advantages and complications involved in becoming a part of a new culture by speaking with non-native speakers of English in the school (ESOL students, with administrative approval) and by interviewing adult non-native speakers of English in the community. Students prepare a “survival guide” for students new to the United States, and reflect on how they might handle being an immigrant.

ACTIVITY SET 1: At the Movies
Several video texts are used to introduce the topic of adapting to another culture. First, students watch clips such as a scene from The Joy Luck Club in which one daughter brings her Anglo fiancé to dinner (and he unintentionally insults the mom) or a scene from European Vacation in which Chevy Chase and his family make a variety of social blunders. Students also watch a scene from El Norte of a girl washing clothes by hand instead of using the washing machine and a clip from Ni de aquí, ni de allá in which India María tries to order a cheese hamburger.

After watching all the video clips, the class reflects on what they have in common and how the situations are similar and different. They demonstrate funny scenes of people who have not yet adapted to the culture in which they find themselves living or visiting. The teacher also shares funny anecdotes of English-speakers’ errors in Spanish usage, e.g., anos, pedo, embarasado, ahora, etc. Next, as a class, students consider seriously what difficulties they might have moving from one culture to another, and they list some phrases or actions that can lead to misunderstandings.

ACTIVITY SET 2: Interviews
Students prepare to interview ESOL students and adults from various cultures regarding their experiences adapting to life in the United States. In pairs, students write three questions that they think would help the class discover how immigrants adapt to a new culture. They share their questions with the class and a master survey is compiled keeping in mind that the questions should be light and relaxed. The survey might ask: Have you ever been misunderstood because you didn’t understand something about the English language or American culture (at school or the store? on the phone?) What did you do about it? Are there still things you do not understand? What are the things that people do or say here that seem strange to you? Is there anything that you have stopped doing or saying because of how people here reacted? There should be room for spontaneity on the part of the students and also the capacity of the teacher to guide the class away from questions that are too personal or “heavy.”

After the survey is compiled, ESOL students are invited to the class, groups are assigned, and interviews are conducted. Each student uses the master survey to interview a student in ESOL Level 1, to find out how people adapt to this culture as well as to learn what they might experience if they were living in another country. In this way, the ESOL students serve as the cultural experts with valuable information to share, as do any of the Spanish-speaking students in class who have firsthand experience living in another country. (Those students are given a chance to share their experiences in the preliminary stages but are also reminded that not all experiences are the same.) Students are encouraged to follow up on the original survey questions whenever possible. The teacher serves as timekeeper and conversation catalyst as needed. (Pairing suggestions: Non-native Spanish students are paired with ESOL students from Spanish-speaking countries; native Spanish-speaking students interview ESOL students with other heritage languages and report the responses in Spanish.)

In the next class, students work in groups of five and compare answers to interview questions, compiling the results of the surveys. They identify ways to categorize the responses, e.g., misunderstood words or actions, operating machines, conducting personal business, etc. Then they report to the class the most common barriers as well as the funniest, saddest, etc.

ACTIVITY SET 3: Survival Guide
Students now have a better understanding of the complications and frustrations experienced by students adapting to life in the United States. Based on what they’ve learned, they create a “survival guide” in Spanish designed to help Spanish-speaking students new to the school. They share it with the ESOL class. First the class brainstorms suggestions for what the guide should include. Next students review their interviews and collectively compile a “dictionary” of misunderstood words or actions useful to both ESOL students and native speakers with whom they come into contact. Working in pairs, students write three survival tips to be included in the guide for new students. They trade papers with classmates, listen to their suggestions, and evaluate and revise their original tips. Pairs read their final survival tips aloud and turn them in on paper. Those students with artistic talent design a cover and illustrate the guide which is photocopied and presented to the ESOL teacher.

As an alternative or additional activity, students contemplate what they can do to help new immigrants adjust to life in the United States. Each student chooses one of those ideas to implement on his or her own or with classmates. The goal is for students to own the challenge of breaking down barriers. Tips for helping newcomers are also compiled for Spanish 1 or 2, the school web site, or the school newspaper.

ACTIVITY SET 4: Exploring Generational Differences
The assimilation experience of a young person new to the country may differ from that of an adult immigrant or of someone who is a second or third generation descendant of an immigrant. To investigate those differences, a Spanish-speaking adult guest speaker from the community is invited to speak to the class in Spanish about his or her experiences in adapting to or participating in American culture. Students prepare general questions in advance to ask the guest speaker. Following the visit, students create a product to show what they have learned. For example, they make a chart of similarities and differences between the students interviewed and the adult or draw a picture contrasting the past (the adult’s experiences) and present (the experiences of the ESOL students). The class also writes notes of thanks in Spanish to the guest and the students interviewed.

ACTIVITY SET 5: Individual Reflection
In this activity set, students reflect on how they might handle the experience of adapting to a different culture. Students imagine that they are immersed in a new culture and brainstorm what that experience would be like. (This is easier if students identify the “new” culture and their reasons for going there.) As an alternative, students may choose to step into the “shoes” of the ESOL student they interviewed. They consider what they would like to maintain from their own culture and in which areas they would feel comfortable adapting to the new culture. They also discuss the feelings they might experience and lessons that could be learned.

To provide an opportunity for individual reflection, students take a grocery bag and fill it with eight items or pictures of those items: four that represent what they would like to “keep” from their culture (e.g., a hamburger to represent favorite foods) and four items representing ways they would be willing to assimilate (e.g., a Spanish-language CD representing target culture music, etc.). In groups of four, students have a “show and tell” about the contents of their bag. Students are encouraged to ask questions about the items and the feelings behind them. (A rubric can be created and their conversations recorded for evaluation purposes if the language lab is used or a portable recorder is placed in the center of the group. This is a good opportunity to review interpersonal conversational skills like turn-taking.)

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Targeted Standards

  • Communication: Interpersonal, Interpretative, & Presentational Modes
  • Cultures: Practices & Perspectives
  • Connections: Other Subject Areas
  • Comparisons: Nature of Language, Concept of Culture, Influence of Language & Culture
  • Communities: Within & Beyond the School Setting

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  • Videotapes and TV/VCR
  • ESOL students/adults from other cultures
  • Guest speaker(s)

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Reflections on How the Standards Are Met

Communication: The presentational mode is used in reporting the results of interviews and group products. The interpersonal mode is used in pair and group work during student interviews, categorizing and writing solutions, etc. The interpretive mode is used as students listen to the guest and each other’s presentations.

: Students discover what American practices differ from those of other cultures and how these may be problematic for immigrants. In interviews, they discover how people of other lands perceive and misperceive American culture and their own.

: Students use Spanish to gain access to information through “living” texts. They expand their knowledge of social studies by comparing the experiences of different immigrants.

: Students understand more about the nature of language as they learn idioms and false cognates in Spanish and English that can lead to misunderstandings. Students compare their own and other cultures through the experiences of ESOL students and guest speakers. They also note the influence of Hispanic culture on American culture and vice versa.

: Students use Spanish within and beyond the school setting to interview ESOL students, guest speakers, and/or community members.

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Expansion Ideas

  • Put students in groups of three, with one acting as an immigrant to the United States, another as an American, and the third as a problem-solver. They act out a scenario in front of the class from the interviews or an original one that they create.
  • A variety of questions can be proposed for research, discussion, or debate: What happens in the second generation of immigrant families? Do they assimilate or continue to identify with their heritage culture? Where are there conflicts, if any? What are the benefits and consequences of changing cultures? What behaviors are acceptable in a particular Hispanic culture but not in American culture and vice versa? What can be done to facilitate communication among cultures in our school? (Think about avoiding or resolving conflicts, what misunderstandings might occur, the consequences of segregation if no effort is made, etc.)
  • Students identify products of the blending of Hispanic and American culture such as Tejano music, Spanglish, Tex-Mex food, and clothing styles. They choose a category and model or demonstrate it: play the song, have a fashion show, prepare food items.
  • Have students match stage names and given names of Hispanic movie stars. Prepare a series of note cards, each containing one name, and pin them to a bulletin board in two columns. The first pair of students works together to match the names by stretching and pinning a piece of yarn between the two cards. Time is called after ninety seconds, and the pair is told the number of correct answers—but not which ones are correct—so that the next pair can try to top the score. Once all students have a chance to play and the answers are revealed, students discuss possible reasons stars change their name.
  • Begin the unit with literature written by Chicano writers such as Sabine Ulibarri.
  • Watch a movie such as My Family (this movie is rated “R”), or read a story such as Me llamo María Isabel, which depicts the experiences of immigrants to the United States.
  • Read excerpts or entire works such as The House on Mango Street and write book reports.
  • Research Spanish-speaking countries and list ten changes students would experience by moving there.

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Appropriate movie clips that show difficulties and challenges of different cultural groups’ experiences when living with or visiting a another culture include:

  • The Joy Luck Club
  • European Vacation
  • El norte
  • Ni de aquí, ni de allá

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