Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series looking at bilingualism in Emporia. Part one was published on Tuesday.
If anyone still believes the myth that a busy adult in today’s world can’t learn a second language, LeLan Dains is proof to the contrary.
He didn’t grow up speaking anything other than English and his dalliance with Spanish in school was brief and lacking in application. And yet, he now considers himself a part of Emporia’s bilingual population.
In 2012, he took some Spanish classes in Colorado Springs prior to going to Central and South America for work, but when he came back, he lost that knowledge again.
Then, five years ago, he decided that he wanted to seriously pursue Spanish.
“I started studying with the intent of, ‘I’m not going to lost it this time. I’m not going to drop it, ‘”he said.
Thus far, he hasn’t, and now he’s having regular conversations with native Spanish speakers and has even translated conversations between English-only and Spanish-only speakers.
For him, learning Spanish made sense. It is the second most spoken language in the United States and it is spoken by a significant portion of Emporia’s population. He briefly “dabbled” in German, the language of his ancestors di lui, but there was something that just didn’t capture him.
“The motivator for me was not heritage; it was the utility of it, ”he said. “I didn’t stick with German, not because it was hard or anything like that, but because I had no functional use in my daily life here with German in Emporia.”
Dains doesn’t believe that he has a special “language gene” that allowed him to pick up a second language. In fact, he believes that virtually anyone can do it and that everyone who he can should.
After all, he said, English isn’t even the official language of the US
“Even though English is the dominant language in education, business, all of that, it doesn’t mean that we can’t enrich our lives and try to help enrich the lives of others by reaching across the table and learning,” he said .
But Dains is far from the only person in town who thinks that way.
Sally Sanchez of Hispanics of Today and Tomorrow said that she believes native English speakers should learn Spanish just as native Spanish speakers should learn English.
“I just can’t say it enough that we need to bridge the gap,” she said. “That is what I would say: to bridge the gap. It’s closing little by little, but it’s not fully closed. “
USD 253 Migrant Education coordinator Patricia Saenz-Reyes agreed. She said that some people learn Spanish “for fun or for personal growth,” but that as the Spanish-speaking population continues to grow, bilingualism will be a key factor in competition for professional opportunities.
“What I’ve learned with colleagues not just here but around the state and even outside of the state is that now when you apply for a job, it’s almost a requirement that you speak Spanish or a second language,” she said. “I think that as time progresses and in the future, it’s going to be a must.”
Dains said that learning Spanish is “both personal and pragmatic.” On a personal level, it has not only helped him to appreciate other cultures, but it has helped him be a better citizen of what is a bilingual community and connect with people he otherwise not have been able to.
Pragmatically speaking, he said that the ability to speak English and Spanish could benefit the economy of Emporia.
“We could just talk about the financial ramifications,” he said. “I can’t quote them, but there’s statistics about the buying power of the Latino population, so if you’re a business owner, just the pure pragmatic financial benefit of speaking with that audience, let alone the intrinsic humanitarian concepts of why you would want to extend that olive branch, (is worthwhile). “
But can the adult brain actually learn a second language as well as a child’s brain can?
Referencing a study performed by the University of Kansas, Dains said that “adult learners can learn at the same rate as a child, if not better.” Some factors that allow a child to learn a language are complete immersion and the need to communicate, which may not necessarily be the conditions under which an adult would try to learn a language.
However, it takes children 1-2 years to reach even a basic beginner’s level in their native language and far more time to become proficient. For adults who already have a foudation in language and a fully developed brain, language acquisition can actually come much faster.
“If you accept that our journey as an adult to learn a second language is going to be very similar to how a child learns their first and we can get over our pride and ego and say, ‘Well, gosh, I probably need to start by reading baby books and little kid books and start immersing myself in that, getting on fire and staying committed, ‘you’re going to learn it every bit as easy as a child would, ”Dains said.
And there has never been a better time to learn a language. Technology offers no shortage of ways to learn, whether through cell phone apps, YouTube videos and language exchange platforms. Dains recommended the Duolingo app, which is completely free and teaches a variety of languages including Spanish.
The proximity of Emporia State University offers another way to learn Spanish. Gregory Robinson, an associate professor in the Modern Languages Department, invited anyone – including non-degree-seeking students – to try a Spanish class at ESU. The university even has Spanish classes that focus on the business and medical fields.
“We want our students to have an experience with the language, with the culture, and be able to become bilingual eventually if they continue working with us,” Robinson said.
Dains is also working with ESU to develop a curriculum for local businesses so that employees can learn the basics of Spanish as it relates to their field. That program should be available this summer.
“We can do more for the community of Emporia in terms of offering opportunities for people to learn Spanish, and not only learn but learn how to speak and have a number of specific contexts where they can hold a conversation and they feel like it’s the natural environment, ”said Jorge Britez, who also works in the ESU Modern Languages Department and has partnered with Dains.
Another opportunity is the Emporia Spanish Speakers program that Dains leads. The group meets twice a month to converse in Spanish and welcomes complete beginners up through advanced and even native Spanish speakers.
“You do not have to be conversational to join,” Dains said. “In fact, I would highly encourage you, if you’re starting from zero, you should still come because that’s part of that immersion piece, being around other people that are speaking it. Even if all you do is show up and listen the first few months, great. By month three or four, I guarantee you’re going to start introducing yourself and getting into the fray, assuming that you’re using other tools in your off time. “
Saenz-Reyes, Sanchez, Robinson and Britez all mentioned Emporia Spanish Speakers as a valuable resource for those learning the language.
In late March, Emporia Spanish Speakers will begin a month-long, twice-weekly program called Los Puentes for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“The class is every bit about teaching the culture,” Dains said. “It’s called Los Puentes, which means ‘bridges,’ because it’s meant to bridge our communities together. So actually what we focus a lot on is teaching about the culture and the language is almost secondary to that. … The students learn about language through that, certain vocabularies and keywords and that kind of thing. “
Registration for Los Puentes, as well as information about meeting times for the Emporia Spanish Speakers conversation group, is available at emporiaspanishspeakers.com.
The opportunities to learn Spanish are readily available, but the question is whether people are willing to put in the effort. Dains – who works full-time and is a business owner, a husband and a father – acknowledged that learning a language is, indeed, hard at times and therefore people need to find their personal motivator. He was able to learn Spanish so quickly and effectively because he had his own of him.
“I was on fire for it, I was passionate about it and I just became obsessed with this commitment I’d made,” he said. “It was the dedication I put to it.”
For Saenz-Reyes and Sanchez, their motivator to learn English as a second language was the need to be able to communicate in the US. Robinson was inspired to learn English because of a teacher he had as a middle schooler in Panama. Britez – who in addition to English and Spanish speaks Guarani, French and Portuguese – learns languages to relate with others.
“It’s all about connecting to the world, so to speak,” Britez said. “… You get connected to those people on a more personal level by speaking the language they think of as their own.”