“They Look At Me Weird” – Dealing With The Awkwardness Of Using L2

Three stories and then I’ll get to the point of this post:

Story #1

I’m sort of like the bee and they’re sort of like the honey.

I’m sort of like the wallet and they’re sort of like the money.

I see them at McDonald’s and at the grocery stores. I notice them at the public parks when I’m pushing my daughters on the swings. They don’t think twice about seeing me. But when I notice them, I’m wishing for a chance to talk to them. I want to be around them. Sometimes I’ll give them a friendly smile and they look at me like, “why are you smiling at me?”

It’s a little weird, I admit.

“They” are the Hispanic adults that live in my community (mostly from Mexico and Puerto Rico). I wish that I could go up to everyone of them and talk to them because I LOVE getting any chance I can to speak Spanish.

However, over the years I’ve noticed a pattern. Whenever I open my mouth to speak Spanish to them, they tend to speak back to me in English. Even if their English is broken, they seem to prefer speaking it. Even if I insist by continuing to reply in Spanish, many of them stick to English. (The exception is if they have a problem and my ability to speak both languages provides a solution for them.)

This dynamic can be disappointing for me, at times. “Don’t they know that I just LOVE to speak Spanish!?”

I’ve wondered about WHY this happens. Maybe they prefer speaking to me in English because:

  • they are afraid that, if we speak Spanish together, it will mean that their English is not good enough.
  • they don’t want to stand out as a foreigner in the community.
  • they would prefer not to be noticed for their ethnicity or ‘foreign-ness.’
  • they want to prove to me that they can function as an English speaker in an English speaking community.
  • they want me to know that they don’t need my Spanish-speaking help.

I don’t know exactly WHAT they think, but I get discouraged when they finish their conversation with me and then walk off speaking Spanish with their hispanic friends/family.

Why do they give me a weird look when I want to speak to them in Spanish? Why do they speak Spanish naturally and comfortably with each other BUT NOT WITH ME?

Story #2:

I was on recess duty and, since it was raining outside, I brought the 3rd graders inside to play in their classroom. Some students started playing “Connect Four” and others sat at their desk drawing pictures. Three girls (all of whom were born into Mexican families and spoke Spanish at home with their parents) decided to play “Battleship.” They’ve always been great friends and it looked like they were having a wonderful time.

But there was one PROBLEM. They were speaking English to each other!

I thought to myself, “why do they speak English to each other if they all are accustomed to speaking Spanish in their homes?” I decided to walk up to them and (in Spanish) say, “why don’t you speak Spanish to your Spanish speaking classmates? She speaks Spanish and YOU speak Spanish. You should continue having fun playing “Battleship” but DO IT WHILE speaking Spanish together.”

Here’s how they reacted:

  1. They paused.
  2. They hesitated.
  3. They looked at each other awkwardly as if saying, “uh. yeah…I know we all speak Spanish…and that we all speak Spanish at home with our families…but it would be SO WEIRD to speak Spanish to each other here at school. All of the other kids are speaking English.”
  4. They said an uncomfortable word or two in Spanish to each other while I stayed close.
  5. They quickly switched into English as soon as they knew I wasn’t watching them anymore.

Why did they give me a weird look when I suggested that they speak Spanish to each other during school hours? Why do they naturally and comfortably speak Spanish at home BUT NOT HERE?

Story #3:

Ever since my wife was pregnant with our first child, I wondered what language I would speak to my children. I knew I wanted them to be able to speak both Spanish and English (and maybe even a 3rd or a 4th language!) but I I wasn’t sure how I would teach them. Some parents suggested for me to speak both languages to them. Other parents told me that doing so would confuse the child. They said it would be better for the mother to exclusively speak one language and the father to exclusively speak the other language. I didn’t know what to do. With hesitation, I to start speaking only English to my first infant. As the months went by, however, I started feeling guilty. I thought, “I’m a Spanish teacher, for crying out loud! At this rate my daughter will never speak Spanish!”

So, one night (when she was 8 months old), I decided to see what would happen if suddenly switched into Spanish in the middle of her bedtime routine. She got her bath (in English). I put her into her pajamas (in English). I gave her her favorite blanket (in English). I picked her up (in English) and then readied myself to sing a song for her and pray for her (in SPANISH). She had been completely calm and content but as soon as I switched into Spanish, she started to cry. It was weird. Her cry seemed to say, “This is different. This is not what I’m used to. Where’s Daddy? Where’s my usual bedtime song?”

Why was she pleasant while I was speaking English and UNPLEASANT WHEN I SWITCHED INTO SPANISH?

Getting To The Point:

As I reflect on stories like these, I realize that:

1- Every language has “its home,” if you will. Remember Story #2 from a post I wrote 10 months ago? A first grader (who speaks Russian at home and English at school) heard me play some Russian audio on my iPAD. When she heard the Russian language she didn’t say, “that’s Russian,” or “I know/speak Russian.” Instead, her eyes got big, her smile got bigger and she exclaimed, “that’s HOME!”

A language feels most at home when:

  • it is with the people that speak it naturally. (i.e. when it is with native speakers)
  • it is within the physical boundaries of where that language is expected to be spoken. (i.e. within a particular country, geographical region, or home/family etc.)

From Story #1 (above): Spanish felt “at home” when the Spanish speaker was speaking with his Hispanic friends and family. (not with me)

From Story #2 (above): Spanish felt “at home” for those 3 Mexican girls at home (with their parents) and not at their NJ public school.

2- When a language is NOT at home, it doesn’t feel as comfortable and the speakers of the language won’t feel as natural.

I think the reason why the Spanish speakers (from Story #1, above) looked at me weird when I suggested that we speak in Spanish is because:

  • we were having the conversation in a public place in New Jersey (where the “at home language” is English).
  • my face didn’t make Spanish feel “at home.” My face is a very non-latino face. I’m as white as white can be and, (no matter how good my accent is) when Spanish looks at me, it doesn’t feel “at home.”

I think the reason why my Spanish speaking students (from Story #2) looked at me weird is because:

  • the language of their school experience is English. Their teachers, cafeteria aids and peers ALL speak English. The “at home” language, in that space, is English.
  • no matter what language is spoken at home, students subconsciously feel/know/agree/believe the language spoken at school is English. To speak any other language, would feel unnatural or out-of-place.

I think the reason (at least in part) that my baby cried when I switched into Spanish (from Story #3) is because:

  • she was used to bed time in English. Her routine included English and switching into Spanish felt foreign.

Implications For The Foreign Language Classroom

  • Although I don’t think L2 can ever be completely “at home” in a foreign language classroom, how “close to home” does L2 feel in your classroom? The more “at home” L2 feels in your classroom, the more naturally it will be spoken by your students.
  • The less “at home” L2 feels in your classroom, the more students will need to be motivated by something external in order to engage in the L2 learning process.
  • L2 will quickly feel less “at home” whenever students perceive L2 as something to be practiced.
  • L2 will feel more “at home” whenever students perceive L2 as something needed in order to engage in meaningful/relevant interpersonal interactions.
  • It’s okay if L2 doesn’t feel at home in your classroom. There are situations where it’s NOT best to teach a foreign language by staying in the target language.

Señor Howard

Señor Howard – www.SenorHoward.com/blog – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – www.SoMuchHope.com – @calhwrd

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4 thoughts on ““They Look At Me Weird” – Dealing With The Awkwardness Of Using L2

  1. Por favor, no deje de hablar a su hija en español, pronto se acostumbrará al idioma y se sentirá “en casa” mis tres hijos hablan español, inglés y ahora francés. El español siempre se ha hablado en casa y, aunque a veces cuando eran pequeños no lo querían, ahora lo agradecen.

  2. Wow! I can relate to every single thing you said here. Thank you for putting so much of my frustration into words. I did the same with my daughter when she was 6 months old. She was upset the whole three days I stuck with it, then I switched back to English (this was before I was a Spanish teacher). Now she is upset with me that I didn’t keep up the Spanish, as she is learning in school, just like the rest of her peers.

  3. Yo le hablo español a mi hijo de dos años, y la verdad al principio se ponía molesto porque me decía “Mom, I see a train” y yo le contestaba “Oh, ves un tren?” y se ponía muy molesto. Nos ha costado, pero por el momento me entiende todo lo que le digo. Pero esa experiencia también me ha ayudado a hablar mas español en mis clases. Tienes un blog excelente, bastantes artículos interesantes.

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