Faculty Spotlight: Cultivating Confidence in Spanish with Maryah

Hi Maryah! Thanks for sitting down with me to chat languages and all things learning. I’ll admit, I’m excited to chat because I’ve heard students really enjoy your class. Can you start off by introducing yourself and what you teach at Sora?

Thanks, Shiyam! Yes, I’m excited to chat too. I’ve been at Sora since January 2021, initially starting as a language guide. By the fall of that year, I became a Spanish expert (equivalent to a humanities expert). I lead expeditions with all of the students at Sora that are taking Spanish.

In middle school, students don’t commit to a language they actually cycle through languages for exposure. Japanese, American Sign Language, etc. So I handle the Spanish language cycle for middle school. In high school, I teach Spanish I and Spanish II expeditions.

How did you get interested in languages? Are you a Spanish native speaker, a heritage speaker (as in, you grew up in a household with native speakers), or is your level of mastery completely self-taught?

My life actually took a twist and my Spanish language abilities are completely self-taught. Spanish was not on my radar growing up but I thought it was one of the coolest things to be bilingual— but I never thought that it would be something I would achieve. I figured if you don’t learn a language by the time you’re seven, you’re done for you and you can’t do it.

I was homeschooled growing up as well and was one of six children. My younger sister was adopted from China and we emphasized Chinese culture and learned how to count in Mandarin and say different words. There was always an element of interest in language, but I just doubted that I would be smart enough to be bilingual. 

I grew up in a very, very rural area in Pennsylvania and I wanted to travel as young as age 13. I went to Honduras when I was 14 by myself with a group without my parents. I couldn’t speak Spanish and the locals couldn’t understand me. They laughed at me. Here I was in a situation and I wanted to talk to people, like real people in front of me, and I couldn’t. That kind of sucks. That experience made me interested in Spanish. 

Later, I ended up traveling to the Dominican Republic when I was 16 as part of a medical team. At this point, my interests were going towards medicine, nursing, etc. So I just volunteered and again was exposed to people that spoke a different language. And I was trying to learn but at this point and I don’t speak or understand yet the language yet. Hardly anything besides, you know, identifying some basic things. I stayed in the Dominican Republic and I kept working on  my language skills. 

I kept trying. Today I am at the point of thinking and dreaming in Spanish. It’s the most amazing thing. And life is interesting, because I wound up meeting my husband here. He’s actually Haitian. And we have a daughter together. And in our house, we speak English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.

As far as why it’s important to learn languages. Where do I begin? There’s part of learning a language where, like other disciplines, it’s very skills-based. Conjugation, pronunciation, etc.

But I would say there is a greater purpose and it’s that so you can have empathy with other people. Because the English-speaking world is just one part of our world. And actually, the United States doesn’t have a law that says English is the official language, so learning languages can help you connect with people around the world or just down the street from you. That’s why language is super important to me. 

Just to give you a small example: there was a really cool moment when I was in New York and a woman came up to me and asked for help in Spanish, and I responded in Spanish. And it was amazing because usually there’s like a moment of asking “Oh do you speak the same language as me?” but at that moment we skipped that question and the interaction was so seamless. And when I think of how Spanish has opened up my world to new relationships, it makes me glow.

What does it take to learn a language? What are the dispositions or the qualities of a student that will make it so that you’ll probably be successful learning a language?

I want to be careful with how I answer this question because language is a really hard skill to build mastery in. The struggle is real, so to speak, and there are challenges that some students have like dyslexia that creates extra hurdles. With that said, you can have “the perfect disposition” and learning a language can still be tricky. It’s important to add that people will have different experiences learning different languages. Someone might have a “smoother” experience learning Spanish as opposed to a language that uses a different alphabet.

I do believe that most people can be successful in learning a new language. Determination is an important quality. Do you actually want to learn this? Because you have to decide, you know, is it something that you’re gonna feel passionate enough about to dedicate time to?

Another quality that is important is having a sense of humility. You are going to make mistakes, and mistakes are part of learning. But let’s be real: accepting that you will make mistakes is hard! I believe it’s the only way that you’re going to learn because your brain is going to say, “Oh, I didn’t say that, right? This is the right way to say it.” 

If we feel mortified by mistakes, then we have to try to laugh at them. That’s the biggest game-changer for the brain. It needs to have a sense of safety and positivity in order to accept the language and make it work for you.

So you have to be determined. You have to be willing to laugh at your mistakes. And you have to have an open mind. In Spanish something might be flipped in comparison to how it is in English, for example. And so your brain has to be able to say, “Okay, this is this doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m just going to accept it the way that it is and accept that is what correct looks like.”

Also another thing, when you learn a new language you will likely experience your different languages mixing in your mind. Spanish will crossover into English and you’ll start mixing your languages from time to time but allow the two realities to exist together, rather than thinking that there’s just one reality in the world. We see that a lot in the United States, for example, in areas like Texas or California where the interaction between Spanish and English is really high at the community level.

And of course, language is so closely tied to culture. So students need to be ready to understand and accept that one thing that is highly valued in the United States or English-speaking cultures is frowned upon, or looked down upon, in a different Spanish-speaking culture. And so being able to accept that and ponder it rather than judge it is super important. 

The last quality I think is important is curiosity. You have to be curious. Because as you are learning a language, if you are the type of student who asks the question, “Why? Why is it like that,” you’ll understand. It’ll stick with you longer. Sora students tend to skew heavily towards the curious, but also as a teacher I am very keen on trying to point out curiosities to keep that fire lit.

Your approach sounds so vibrant. What are your learning expeditions like?

Hmm, where to start? Well, my expeditions are a lot. As you know, Sora is really ambitious with taking the standards for accreditation and making sure that the educational experience is that and beyond what a student can get in a traditional school.

So my expeditions are called Spanish I and Spanish II, but the themes will change. Previous themes have been Así soy yo and Bienvenido al barrio, and the most recent one: ¿Qué es el bienestar?

In cycle five of this year, students began a two-part project. Starting in cycle five, Spanish II students worked on a project related to business and marketing. They had to create a customer persona in Latin America that would be the ideal student for Sora. And then in cycle six, they’re creating marketing pieces in Spanish that we would imagine could show up in a Spanish-speaking country’s advertising to target their customer persona. 

Students actually interviewed some students that I connected with here in the Dominican Republic to find out what education systems are like in Latin America and compare and contrast those models with Sora. 

My Spanish I students worked on a project to create equitable health resources for Spanish-speaking communities. So all the students picked a health-related topic they are passionate about. And then they’re creating a health PSA about it. And so the students are really, I’ve been surprised, actually, at the reception of this project. They all have something that they’re really interested in, whether it’s like mental health or physical health, and they’re all just delving into it from different perspectives. So I’m really pleased with that one.

In general, I make things like conjugation tables available in class. But the focus is on playing with language, not memorizing conjugation tables. I try to play with the language as much as possible because I know that that’s what keeps them engaged. We do some online games where it’s a quiz but has more play with it. I tried to keep it very activity-heavy. Because that keeps you relaxed. And I think that as soon as the stress hormones go up, you’re just not going to be learning at all. So I try to keep it as light and you know, positive as possible. 

When a student makes a mistake, I’m like, “Okay, you know, I see what you guys were thinking.” I see how their brains were trying to replicate language patterns. It makes sense and I see how you’re making that choice. We use these moments to talk about why the correct answer is the way that it is and not the way that they thought it was. And in that way, I try to keep it as interactive as possible. 

That’s really cool. How far can students go with you in Spanish, like to what level?

Right now it’s Spanish I and II because of the class sizes, but students can do an Individual Study Project (ISP) with me to get credit for higher levels of Spanish. 

I do have one student that I’m working with through an independent study project. He was in the middle of a Spanish III course at his other school before switching to Sora. He was motivated to get that credit for Spanish III and was able to propose an independent project that got approved by the school. His project is spanning two academic cycles (or 12 weeks) and by the end of it, he will have credit for Spanish III.

Okay, bottom line: What will students get out of learning Spanish at Sora?

We’re really trying to create an educational experience that encourages and prepares students to be global citizens and come out of this with real-life skills. They’ll come out of these expeditions with relationship-building skills, they’ll know how to network, and they’ll know how to coordinate and collaborate with people who are different from them. And I think that in that sense, studying language at Sora is a crucial element to everything else that we offer because as I emphasized earlier, acquiring language skills increases your ability to empathize with more and more people. 

When it comes to being a global citizen, when it comes to being a responsible human being and a kind of human being, I think that the way that we present language at Sora is just special and unique. I would tell parents and students that might not be already interested in language to reconsider it because it’s essential. And it’s one of those things that you can fall in love with.

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