Progress and Plateaus in Chile

Tara Paul, a WorldTeach volunteer in the Chile Ministry semester program which departed in July of this year, shares her experiences settling into her assignment at a public high school in the city of Curanilahue.

I have been assigned to the public high school here in town, Liceo Mariano Latorre. My first week was spent observing the English classes I would soon be teaching. It was an interesting experience. I’ve never felt like such a celebrity.

A couple students asked me if I knew Michael Jackson, wanted to know if I went to his funeral, and some even got up to demonstrate the Moon Walk. Each time I mentioned that I was from California, I heard a chorus of ooh’s and ahh’s. Students in every class wanted to know if I have a boyfriend, if I am on Facebook, and what’s my cell phone number – umm…yeah right! I get lots of kisses on the cheek - “besos” from the students. This is a normal Chilean greeting, and it’s nice, but when 40 students in a row stand in a line to kiss you as they walk out the door, it becomes a little exhausting - especially when it's only the first class of the day! Each morning as I approach the school, a few students open the window and yell “Hello Miss Tara” or “Good morning Miss Tara” from the second floor. I imagine their teachers don’t appreciate that. But by far the most ridiculous and amusing occurrence takes place almost daily: a student, and not one of mine, walks by my classroom and shouts with his Spanish accent “Miss Tara! My heart cries for you!”

I have found that learning a language is a constant cycle of brief and exciting progress followed by long, aggravating plateaus. It starts out as a cacophony of strange sounds that seem impossible to grasp. Then, you start to figure out what some of the words mean, and you start putting them together. A sense of confidence and euphoria starts to set in. You say the phrases with pride and satisfaction even though you still sound like an idiot. It dawned on me a little over a month ago that despite this newfound ability, I simply can’t fathom the significance the words have to a native speaker. In this sense, learning and using the new phrases is similar to playing with a new toy – fun and engaging but used flippantly. For example - You are beautiful; I love you. Think about how strong those phrases are in English. There’s a lot of emotion both in speaking and listening to those statements. Now consider them in Spanish – tĂș eres linda; te amo; te quiero. These are just examples, but if you didn’t grow up hearing these all the time, they just don’t have the same impact in your ear. Thus, in the beginning, you're uttering and hearing statements without fully comprehending their value. I don’t know when the true weight and meaning of words in one language transcends into the other or if it ever does, but I have a sense that it takes a long time.

I mentioned that language learning is full of progress and plateaus. Well, I’ve moved past the exciting Spanish-is-my-new-favorite-toy stage and hit a particularly long plateau. At times I have felt like I am drowning, lacking the faculties of communication and unable to stay afloat. Feeling I’m in way over my head, there have been days when I just want to shut myself off from everyone and quit trying altogether. Frequently embarrassed, conscious of how ridiculous I sound, and fatigued from the labors of obsessing over correct conjugations, there’s nothing to do but keep at it. The drive to communicate pulls me out and forces me to persevere. Maybe I’ll wake up one of these days and be pleasantly surprised to hear the words flow confidently and correctly out of my mouth. Until then nothing is easy, but knowing that things will get better motivates me through the challenges.

Above: Some of Tara's students proudly displaying their new adverbs.
Below: Students and host teachers sitting at the school's booth on "English Day" in Curanilahue.

Above: Tara and a few of her students supporting the "Alianza Naranja" during the school's anniversary celebrations.

Below: Two of Tara's students who competed in a national violin competition, the student on the right being the national champion violinist!

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