“¿De dónde es usted?” Professor Alister Ramírez Márquez asks a student in Spanish 101. “Where are you from?”
“Yo soy de Burma,” replies the student from his seat. “¿Y es su país grande o pequeño?” asks Ramírez Márquez, a professor in BMCC’s Department of Modern Languages. “Is your country large or small?”
“Gracias,” says Ramírez Márquez, turning to another student. “Tatsiana, ¿dónde vive usted?” In Spanish, she answers that she lives in Brooklyn but came here from Byelorussia.
And so it goes in the summer session of Spanish 101, an intensive four-day-a-week introductory course. But as Ramírez Márquez is quick to note, for most of the students, Spanish is not a second language, but a third or even fourth.
The classroom as global village
“There are students from Burma, Byelorussia, China, the Czech Republic, Guyana, Pakistan, Japan, Montenegro, Nepal, Nigeria, and Russia and, of course, the U.S.,” he says. “All are fluent in English and their native language, and some know other languages as well. Since they all come here with advanced language skills, I focus on using what they already know.”
Admittedly, the intensive four-day-a-week schedule can be demanding, “but it really works,” says business major Jordette Brandow. “When I know I have to be here every day, I’m anxious to get here and see what we’re going to learn.”
Claudia Norman, who has served in the U.S. Army for the past six years, says that a knowledge of Spanish will be an asset in her military career, “since so many of my fellow soldiers are Spanish-speaking.” Currently stationed in New York, she will deploy to Afghanistan in October.
Like Chinese-born Shengen Zhang, many of the students chose Spanish over BMCC’s other foreign-language offerings because of its widespread use in New York. “Chinese and Spanish are totally different languages, phonetically and grammatically,” Zhang says. “But I find that it helps to take it step-by-step, the way I learned English.”
Nursing major Osamede Aedeyo Uwaifo, who emigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria commutes to campus from the Bronx, where Hispanic culture is prevalent. “I love everything about the culture—the music, the language, the food,” she says. More to the point, she feels that a knowledge of Spanish will be an invaluable asset to her as a nurse, “enabling me to interact with Hispanic patients.”
First French, then Spanish
Fellow nursing major Tatsiana Boutenko likewise believes that a knowledge of Spanish will make her a more responsive and effective practitioner. “Actually, I’ve heard from doctors and nurses that when they start working in a hospital in New York, they’re put through a crash course in Spanish—just so they can learn a few key words and phrases,” she says. Boutenko studied French for several years in her native Byelorussia, but admits she hasn’t retained much of it. “But what I do remember has been useful in my study of Spanish,” she says.
There are obvious challenges to teaching Spanish to a class that comprises so many disparate cultures and linguistic backgrounds, says Ramírez Márquez, “but it helps that we all have English as a common ground.” Because he has at least a nodding acquaintance with many other languages, he is often able to make the quirks and complexities of Spanish more meaningful to his students.
“Spanish organizes all nouns by gender—feminine or masculine,” Ramírez Márquez notes. “German does also—but why is the word for ‘bridge’ feminine in German, but masculine in Spanish—and why would you even associate something like a bridge with a masculine thing? This sort of thing becomes the basis of some interesting classroom discussions and helps us all learn about each other’s cultures.”