Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Graduate Study in a Non- “Native” Language

I am just now corresponding with Xilin/Vivian, a graduate of our MED program. She is a shining star, now at Penn State in a doctoral program in Adult Education. And I am thinking now of Sharon/Hsiu Hsiu from Taiwan who is now in Massachusetts working in a Chinese-English bilingual school. And I am thinking of Erika, back in her home of Brazil with her doctorate–always humble about her extraordinary English. And I’m thinking of so many of you past and current and future students who will arrive for a graduate degree in a second (or third or fourth etc.) language and how scary that may be and how many challenges everyone goes through when they return to study at the graduate level and how many other layers are added when one pursues study in a non-“native” language (though so many of you arrive at UGA with such native-like proficiency and excellence that you often have many advantages in stretching the limits of our dear lingua franca English).

I myself remember being in an undergraduate political science class at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City.  I remember how much my head hurt trying to keep up, trying to distinguish what I didn’t understand in my emergent Spanish fluency and what I didn’t understand because I was a cultural newcomer and because my background in political science generally wasn’t strong.  I was trying to understand more about the history of striking workers and then one day showed up to class to find no one there.  The university workers, including faculty, were all on strike! The strikes continued throughout the semester and I think we only had class for half the number of weeks we were supposed to have been there.  I learned so much from the course readings and discussions and so much more from experiencing a strike first hand (if only I took these lessons to heart for the long run)! I also took a creative writing course in Mexico City.  I poured over my stories and poems in a second language–how interesting! My classmates remarked my translations of common U.S. English idioms and how strange and marvelous they seemed in Spanish! Suddenly what was trite in my home language, was novel and golden in my L2!  My year was full of headaches and head explosions–misunderstandings and maxi-understandings.  But it was so long ago now and it wasn’t graduate study, it was only a “third year” abroad where the goal was to become fluent in Spanish, not an expert in any particular content area.  What is it like for graduate students now?

If any of you readers out there have insight from whatever your perspective on graduate study and the language of graduate study, please share! The more we can open up dialogue about this experience, the better!

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