LiveEnglish with Livemocha teacher and host Miranda chimes in on our Diary of a Language Teacher series.
If you are one of the over ten-thousand people who follow the LiveEnglish with Livemocha English language learning sessions on Facebook, you’ll recognize this gal: Miranda is your host and teacher every weekday at 18:00 GMT. When she heard about Livemocha’s Diary of a Language Learner / Language Teacher series, she was excited to share with her students and the Livemocha community what her experience is as a teacher. Here she introduces herself and tells her story of going from student to teacher.
Here’s Miranda in her own words.
Before I was a language teacher, I was a language learner. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The city is named after a Spanish duke who governed New Mexico (then called New Spain) in the 1600′s. We have street names like “Paseo Del Norte” and “Alameda”. Everyone here knows what “¿Cómo estás?” means, and most people know that the surname “Jaramillo” is pronounced “Ha-ra-mi-yo”. I grew up in an English-speaking household, but Spanish and Mexican influences were all around me. When it came time to take a language course in high school, the obvious choice was, well, Spanish. But I had no idea that learning a second language would shape the rest of my career, and more importantly, the rest of my life.
My first Spanish teacher was Señora Ogle. She printed out lyrics and had us sing along to Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, and Ricky Martin. When she said “Siéntense”, we sat down. When she said “perro”, we barked “guau guau”. (That’s the sound dogs make in Spanish.) We even pantomimed throwing up to learn the verb “vomitar”. (Apparently, our teacher wasn’t squeamish.) From Señora Ogle, I learned that it’s not enough to learn new words by translation – you have to imagine, internalize, and attach words to images, actions, and situations, not the equivalent word in your native language. I have never forgotten the grammar and vocabulary words that she taught me 10+ years ago. And because of that first taste of Spanish, I could never get enough.
“The day I stopped worrying was the day I really achieved conversational fluency.”
I went on to take as many Spanish classes as my high school offered. When I got to college, I did the same. I listened to Spanish radio. I watched Spanish news. In terms of grammar and listening comprehension, I was fluent. But talking with native speakers gave me anxiety attacks. What if they couldn’t understand me? What if they made fun of me?
Then I had the opportunity to volunteer for my church in Minneapolis. I worked in communities made up of immigrants and refugees from Mexico, Central and South America, Laos, and West and East Africa. I taught conversational English classes and helped people study for job interviews and naturalization. “Don’t be scared,” I would tell them. “Don’t worry about mistakes – just communicate!” What a hypocrite I was! How could I insist that they do something that I wouldn’t? I realized that I needed to take my own advice. So I did. The day I stopped worrying was the day I really achieved conversational fluency. After I lost the anxiety, not only could I talk with people about virtually any topic in Spanish, I could also translate to and from Spanish. Because of my newfound confidence, I even learned basic phrases in Hmong, Swahili, and a number of tribal languages.
After I finished my volunteer service, I returned home, finished my degree in English and Spanish education, and married my best friend from college, who coincidently happens to be a native Spanish speaker. (Side note: To improve your command of a new language, you don’t have to fall in love with a native speaker, though it certainly doesn’t hurt!) When I took my first trip to Mexico to meet my future in-laws, I found myself chatting with my mother-in-law and thought to myself, “What if I had never shaken the fear of making mistakes? Would I be having this conversation today?” Probably not. I may still have married my husband, but I most likely would have sat in silence and lost out on experiences and relationships with a whole other culture.
“As a language teacher, I try to help students overcome their fear of making mistakes…”
Now I speak Spanish on a daily basis, but I remember all that I went through to learn a new language. The excitement, the frustration, the embarrassment. As a language teacher, I try to help students overcome their fear of making mistakes (especially in speaking), something that held me back for a long time. I wish everyone could understand that native speakers are, for the most part, very willing to help someone that is trying to learn their language. I took advantage of that help by asking questions like “How do you say _____?” or “What does that mean?” or “What do you call it when you… ?” Everyone around me was my teacher. (Everyone, that is, who could put up with my incessant questions.) I encouraged people to correct my mistakes. I asked them to be brutal and tried very hard not to get offended when they were. If anyone ever made fun of me, I don’t remember it. It turns out that my original concerns were way overblown. Often I meet people who have had years of English grammar and still refuse to speak it because they are scared. “Stop stressing out!” I want to yell at them. But I know that like me, everyone needs to have their own language epiphany.
Miranda is an English and Spanish teacher. Find her free English classes on Facebook every weekday at LiveEnglish with Livemocha. She currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, where she and her husband are raising two bilingual children.