Love your Neighbor, Learn their Language

Team member Anna Reyes (left) volunteers as a high school Spanish teacher at the Academy for G.O.D. She particularly enjoys helping students come into an awareness of not just the mechanics of Spanish grammar, but the social realities faced by many speakers in the US and how followers of Christ can responsibly respond.

Team member Anna Reyes (left) volunteers as a high school Spanish teacher at the Academy for G.O.D. She particularly enjoys helping students come into an awareness of not just the mechanics of Spanish grammar, but the social realities faced by many speakers in the US and how followers of Christ can responsibly respond.

This school year, four of our Latin America Team members serve as volunteers teaching Spanish at both the Academy and Institute for G.O.D. Learning Spanish is an important requirement for all members of our team for our work in our international region. However, sharing our skills with students here in the US is important for us as well. It is our privilege to help bridge the communication divide between neighbors here in the states, regardless of whether our students’ paths ultimately take them outside of the US or not.

I volunteer to teach a Spanish grammar course at the Academy for G.O.D. My students are high schoolers on various trajectories towards their life and career goals. One of my favorite questions to ask my students at the beginning of the semester is, “Why are you in this class?” At first, they are confused. The question may seem rhetorical, but it really isn’t.

Team member Lavinia Fernandez (right) volunteers as a Spanish teacher at both the Academy and Institute for G.O.D. She approaches the task by first acknowledging that language is necessarily tied to human speakers and therefore cannot be responsibly approached without considering the perspective of the other.

Team member Lavinia Fernandez (right) volunteers as a Spanish teacher at both the Academy and Institute for G.O.D. She approaches the task by first acknowledging that language is necessarily tied to human speakers and therefore cannot be responsibly approached without considering the perspective of the other.

“What do you mean?” they ask. I respond by pressing the pause button on the busy lives we lead. “Why are you in this room, on this day, beginning a course in Spanish?”

A surprising theme that has emerged from their answers is the desire to understand Spanish speakers, not on the scientific level of translation, but on the emotional level of human connection. When they take a moment to pause and assess their personal motivation, they find more than simply being able to translate their thoughts. They would like to be able to take the perspective of another, a perspective that eludes them due to the barrier of language.

“I want to learn Spanish so that I can talk and connect with people who speak Spanish. Learning this language can help me develop new relationships with people I couldn't talk to before. The skill of learning different languages can help you in a lot of ways, but I think this one is one of the most important ones to consider,” a student said.

Pledges and candidates of the Latin America team benefit from the instruction offered by team member Ben Reese (right) at the Institute for G.O.D. All team participants are encouraged to continue pursuit of fluency and take annual exams to ensure that progress is being made.

Pledges and candidates of the Latin America team benefit from the instruction offered by team member Ben Reese (right) at the Institute for G.O.D. All team participants are encouraged to continue pursuit of fluency and take annual exams to ensure that progress is being made.

Another student reflected after her semester, “Something that surprised me was that we could apply what we learn in Spanish to the world changing around us.”

It is bridging this connection that excites me as an educator. 1 John teaches that “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God who he has not seen.” Doing the arduous work of learning a language in order to understand another in order to take their perspective is a valuable step towards just such a love of neighbor. Though our classes and the material to cover is vast, I make it a priority to include assignments that can broaden the perspective of my students. We’ve had class discussions or presentations on current events about immigration issues in our nation. We’ve discussed the growing desire among Spanish-speaking Americans for Spanish language children’s books that don’t simply translate stories from English, but make available the stories that native speakers enjoyed as children. I have also offered extra credit to students who volunteer with the ELL program of GOD, not to teach English, but to help the staff and students in service such as cleaning or hospitality while simply observing and reflecting on the experience. Though it is God who gives us sight to see our fellow brothers and sisters with the love that He has for them, it is moments such as these that bring an opportunity for God to move.

Students in the high school Spanish class taught by team member Ninfa Parker (right) approach language from a conversational strategy. Growing up in a truly bilingual environment, Ninfa’s expertise helps students to intuit the artistic side of language learning, developing a feel for the correct use of grammar.

Students in the high school Spanish class taught by team member Ninfa Parker (right) approach language from a conversational strategy. Growing up in a truly bilingual environment, Ninfa’s expertise helps students to intuit the artistic side of language learning, developing a feel for the correct use of grammar.

The weekly effort of teaching Spanish is not unlike many educators throughout the US. What’s different is that language acquisition isn’t our only goal. Instead, we aim to increase fluency in our students as well as cultural and political sensitivity. We want them to not only hear, but also understand the perspective of our Spanish speaking neighbors in Nashville and Latin America alike in order to build unity within the Kingdom of God.