Speaking a second language? ¡No hay problema!

by Hutchison World Languages Chair Alejandra Lejwa
Many years ago, I sat in my office anxiously waiting for a parent who had signed up to see me during parent-teacher conferences. This particular student was doing great — straight “A”s in my AP Spanish class, so her father’s visit puzzled me.
When he arrived, he told me that he and his daughter were recently in Mexico, where they had rented a car to travel to their destination. Halfway to the place, the car broke down. They got to a pay phone and called the rental company. After trying to explain the problem in English and getting frustrated with the agent, his daughter took the phone. Much to her father’s surprise, his daughter switched to Spanish, explained the issue, got a tow truck to come pick them up, and arranged for a replacement car. “I did not know she knew that much Spanish!” he exclaimed. “I was hopeless, and my daughter took care of everything.”
“Well yes, sir, your daughter is proficient in Spanish,” I said with a big smile, and was filled with pride for my student.
The following year, I was sitting on the third row of a tour bus traveling through Patagonia. In the first seat, an anthropology student from Buenos Aires and one of my students were discussing in Spanish the connections of Jimi Hendrix songs and the Vietnam War. I have to say, I learned a lot about U.S. history that day, and again I smiled with pride.
I have accumulated many stories like these over my 14 years at Hutchison—stories of girls applying the language they learned at school in the real world. They usually come in texts from recent graduates and their parents, Facebook messages, emails, and thank-you notes. Because they speak at a higher proficiency, Hutchison students often are placed in more advanced college classes. They get offered jobs as interpreters after helping at Hispanic fairs, get accepted in nursing school without biology degrees, become interpreters during mission trips, or help travelers who don’t speak English at airports. The fact that they can do it with ease and confidence in their skills is not only language proficiency but also intercultural competence. In a globalized world, Hutchison young women are able to interact with native speakers, solve problems, help those in need, work in a global environment, and discover and learn more in their travels.
For me, proficiency is why we learn a language, why we spend years mastering it, and most importantly, proficiency guides the Hutchison world languages program. Teaching for proficiency, especially oral proficiency, is not new. It has been around language educators for decades, although not many programs actually embrace it. It became the main part of Hutchison’s world language standards back in 2001, when we partnered with Dr. Audrey Heining-Boynton, a renowned world language scholar, to assess and redesign our world languages program and retrain our teachers. The goal was for girls to become experts in the language they study, and also be able to use it in conversation.
Since then, the program has reached new heights. Our Pre-K through 12th–grade program centers on Spanish and Chinese immersion classes in which teachers and students are expected to use the target language 90 percent or more of class time. Girls are the center of each lesson, while teachers act as coaches in a fast-paced, interactive class, filled with authentic and culturally relevant materials. Assessments are a reflection of classroom practices, and grades are based on actual oral proficiency. Continuous teacher training and re-training have been key elements in teaching for proficiency. Dr. Heining-Boynton continues to serve as one of our visiting scholars.
The girls will not say that their Spanish or Chinese class is easy. However, it is not surprising to see them excited about their language classes and happy with their success as they sense all they can do with it. Most of the time, the teachers are the ones who fully appreciate the level of proficiency of the girls, and we grin to ourselves as we listen to girls talking.

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Hutchison is the leading private girls school in Memphis for ages 2 years old through twelfth grade.