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The Instrumentality of Spanish in Early Spanish Education: Unraveling the “Linguistic Masquerade” via Storytelling

Alejandro Azocar

Spanish is my native language—a language that is deeply engrained in my heart and soul. Even though I am bilingual in English and Spanish, and the fact is that English is the dominant language in my daily activities, Spanish is still part of who I am. Spanish is the language that reminds me of my home country, Chile, my family, my friends, and my entire life before I moved to the United States 18 years ago.

I refuse to be called a “native speaker.” Rather, I prefer to be called “a user of Spanish.” I am a person who learned the language earlier than any other speaker who perhaps learned it in adolescence or adulthood. Inspired by a critique on the dichotomy “Self/Other” (Levinas, 1969), I prefer not to engage myself in “othering” learners of Spanish as a second language, particularly Americans, by labeling them as “near native speakers,” “intermediately proficient speakers,” or “nonnative speakers” among many other “logical” categorizations that are used so frequently not only in the scholarly literature but also among language educators. In fact, such terminology, which has been promoted and perpetuated by the scientific field of second language acquisition (SLA), has constructed the learning of any foreign language in ascendancy, that is, from “zero” proficiency to “almost perfect” proficiency. This frame of thought symbolizes modernity as the evolution of the human mind toward the presumed “perfection” of native speakers. Indeed, within the intellectual framework of modernity, a certain level of phonological and grammatical perfection comprises a line of reasoning called “native language proficiency.” More importantly, this commonsensical distinction between native and nonnative speakers has been artificially constructed. Pinker (1994) recounted the story of Dizzy Dean, a 1950s baseball announcer, who routinely described plays using expressions such as, “He slood into second base.” Mr. Dean was a native speaker of English but in his home state of Arkansas dialectal peculiarities such as these were the standard. Thus, it is fair to ask ourselves, “What is native speaker proficiency?” Although the case of Dizzy Dean may seem extreme, it is an example of the complexity and variation of language in a continuum.

A brief review of some of the research in SLA confirms my idea about the ascendancy nature of language learning. The assumption is that the learner is striving toward some statable goal, a standard and perfect version of the language that is embodied in the mind of every native speaker (Bialystock & Hakuta, 1999). In a specific research study, Bongaerts, Planken, and Schils (1995) elicited raters’ judgments of learners’ degree of foreign accent. In such a study, the overall proficiency was judged, and as such, it probably came closest to a commonsense definition of language proficiency. However, the distinction between proficiency and the level of accent is usually puzzling because people who are native speakers of a language tend to intermingle both ideas, which leads to important implications about the true definition of “proficiency.” In this study, it was hard for people who rated the accents of second language speakers to distinguish between accent and overall fluency. It is interesting to see that the level of accent is often used as a way to distinguish between native and nonnative speakers, in which native speakers are usually perceived as having “no accent at all.”

In response to these puzzling and indeed uncomfortable ideas (to me) derived from scientific research in SLA, I reaffirm what I claimed earlier. I prefer to call all speakers of any language, whether first or second language speakers, as “language users,” regardless of their proficiency levels, grammatical accuracy, and their level of accent. Therefore, I believe that Americans who speak Spanish as a second language are entitled to possess and even bear the right to “own” my language as much as I do. I also believe that this philosophy is fundamentally inclusive because it promotes a spiritual connection with Spanish in which all speakers of Spanish are united. Unfortunately, this spiritual connection is still invisible or simply nonexistent in the theory that guides present-day foreign language pedagogy at all levels, including early childhood education.

In this chapter, I want to argue that teaching Spanish as an object to be acquired ignores the deep foundations that reside in it. As a result, students are not given the opportunity to establish a spiritual connection with Spanish. Language acquisition also involves getting to know the humanness that resides in any foreign language. I contend that affectivity towards Spanish must be cherished in the classroom, so a message of advocacy and defense must be inculcated in the students who attend a Spanish class. If this principle were incorporated in the curriculum, students would develop a spiritual connection with Spanish. Nevertheless, in an attempt to learn Spanish quickly and effectively, present-day discourses that shroud foreign language pedagogy in the United States privilege “the teachable,” namely, grammar and pronunciation for correct communicative purposes. What is tested is attestable proficiency, which equates to correctness; so the more correct native-like proficiency in a foreign language, the more successful is the acquisition of language, and subsequently the more “connections” (understood as dialogues) with native speakers can be carried out. In the following paragraphs, I show how this instrumentality of Spanish teaching does not conceive language as a vehicle of cultural and human communication among diverse peoples. Paradoxically, many people may become fluent in a second language but they are unable, or unwilling, to “connect” with speakers of such languages. In an era of global integration, isn’t it necessary to step beyond a superficial vision of the linguistic Other (the one who speaks a language other than English) and get to know him or her ethically and respectfully? More specifically, can American speakers of a second language get to know the “Latin American Other” regardless of their native-like proficiency? Can American speakers of Spanish as a second language see “beyond the grammar” and develop a genuine sense of advocacy for the people who were born and raised in Latin America? Inspired by Levinas (1969), I contend that educators who choose to teach a foreign language hold a responsibility toward those who were born and raised in countries where such a language is spoken. However, this principle is still unperceivable in the Spanish class.

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