A Hint of Spanish

by MaryEllen Krah

At Boston College, it can be difficult for the generally domestic population to understand the distinct cultures of international students.  Though different clubs on campus offer students a chance to explore either their own or an unfamiliar heritage, these groups can be intimidating for students who do not have an understanding of these different cultures and thus tend to be made up of a majority of students who are of one particular nationality.  Even within these clubs, there are few opportunities for domestic students at Boston College to immerse themselves completely in these international cultures and lifestyles.  As a result, it is difficult for students to engage with students who speak other languages and immerse themselves in a way that daily language classes cannot provide.  That is where La Casa Hispanica stands out.

This living community, La Casa Hispanica, aims to solely speak the target language, Spanish, in order to help students improve their fluency.  On top of this, La Casa has many different events throughout the year for both the residents and the greater Boston College community to immerse themselves in Spanish language and Hispanic and Latin American culture.  The residents consist of both domestic and international students alike; all they share is their passion to improve their language.  Besides this, the group is made up of a large range of ethnicities, speaking abilities, and experience.  The mix of students and great variety of programs at La Casa Hispanica together make this living experience beneficial to both the students’ language skills and lifelong understanding of Latin America and Spanish cultures.

Directed by Evelin Gamarr, a PhD student in Boston College’s Romance Language Department studying Hispanic Studies, La Casa Hispanica houses twenty students, with two rooms of boys and three rooms of girls.  The ages span from sophomore to senior year.  Students are admitted to the program depending on “how they communicated and if they’re interesting,” according to Gamarr.  “I basically look for kids who want to improve and try to get as much as they can from this immersion that we provide here from the culture and to the language itself,” she explains.  A native from Peru, Evelin feels that she, too, “brings something unique to La Casa” and is able to “give a lot more than [she] gives in [her] classrooms when [she] teaches.”  At the same time, Evelin “learns from…the residents.”  Interacting with the residents allows for her to witness their common mistakes, so Evelin can use this greater knowledge of what Spanish language learners struggle with most to understand the students in her classroom better.  As a result, she is able to restructure the curriculum in her classroom to administer best to those needs.  Also, she can experience traditions of the different Latin American and Hispanic cultures besides those of her own.

As the director, Evelin has found that the most effective way to help the students correct their grammar is by using the stand back method. Instead of focusing on making improvements through grammatical corrections, she tries to let the students catch their own mistakes.  From the moment she reads applications, Evelin focuses on the effort and dedication to the language.  She says, “If they just come here and listen and talk, they will correct themselves.  Because that’s not my style, like ‘Ah, she said something wrong!’”  From her experience as a professor, Evelin explains that she is aware of the benefits of self-correction.  She feels that if the students are able to pick up on their mistakes themselves, they are much more likely to remember that they made it in the first place.  She is hardly ever concerned about their commitment to work because if they choose not to participate, they are the ones missing their chance – not her and not the rest.

“Plus, I am too old to get mad,” Evelin adds. “I don’t want to get wrinkles!”

La Casa Hispanica is open to both domestic and international students.  Yolanda Botti-Lodorica, a junior from Pittsburgh studying Spanish, chose to live in La Casa to prepare for studying in Spain next semester.  While she has been taking Spanish classes throughout college, she felt that living in La Casa would help prepare her for the immersion she would experience once there.  According to Yolanda, American students who travel abroad tend to feel that a lack of vocabulary is most responsible for difficulties in communicating in a foreign country.  Studies such as those of Garcia-Amaya and Dewey show that domestic immersion can greatly aid vocabulary acquisition.  While Lorenzo Garcia-Amaya’s study shows that international immersion provides better fluency gains due to the increased exposure than does domestic immersion, “no significant longitudinal differences were seen” regarding lexical retrieval in Spanish (Garcia-Amaya iv).  This shows that the amount of vocabulary that students can learn in a domestic immersion program is equivalent to that from an international experience. In his study comparing proficiency test results of English Spanish-learners in a seven-week overseas intensive immersion program in Leon, Spain to those of a fifteen-week domestic foreign language classroom in an at-home context, Garcia-Amaya found that “no significant longitudinal differences were seen for [the immersion] learners regarding lexical retrieval in Spanish (which requires articulation and morphophonological and phonetic encoding in addition to lexical access)” (Garcia-Amaya iv). In other words, the acquisition of new vocabulary while abroad equaled that of the at-home immersion classroom. Additionally, in Dan Dewey’s study comparing vocabulary recall of international study abroad students to that of an intensive domestic immersion program, there were no significant differences in performance (Dewey 311). Such vocabulary acquisition will ultimately benefit Yolanda when she becomes engulfed in Spanish language this upcoming spring semester, whether it is in the classroom or navigating throughout the country.

Despite Yolanda’s excitement to improve her Spanish, her lack of complete fluency does have a few setbacks. “When I want to tell a story it is difficult because I want to say it quickly and with all the details,” she explains. “But I am not able to since I am not entirely fluent. So it takes a lot of time and patience” (Botti-Lodorica). However, even after just one month of living in La Casa, Yolanda has already found that she can talk a little more easily and comfortably. And while the struggle may be aggravating, she knows that in the end it will have been worth it. She hopes that by the end of the semester she will be able to speak comfortably and naturally. The residents all have a similar goal in mind, so they work together to solely speak in Spanish because they know this is the only way they will be able to improve. All of the students go through the frustration of which Yolanda spoke, yet they are aware that this frustration will only go away in time with true effort.

The reason students like Yolanda are able to benefit from this program is because nearly half the residents in La Casa are international students.  Alexandra Tinoco, a sophomore from Honduras, has always known that she wanted to come study in Boston.  In fact, the majority of the students from her high school came to colleges in the United States.  However, most went to schools in the south, like in Texas and Florida, where the amount of Spanish-speaking students is much greater.  In La Casa, Alexandra is able to find a stronger community of students interested in speaking Spanish in an area of the country where the population of Spanish speakers is much smaller.  Beginning English in kindergarten, Alexandra speaks English fluently and has no difficulty conversing with the American students.  However, she does find herself gravitating towards the other Latin people, explaining, “All the people are interrelated – you get to know all of the Latin people here and all have had something in common” (Tinoco).  La Casa has allowed her to branch out from the Latin community to students who share a common interest in Spanish yet can provide Alexandra with some American culture.  Conversely, Alexandra’s contribution as an international student in the house is invaluable, whether it be her native accent while speaking with the other students or knowledge of Honduran culture and sharing this in different events.  She chose to apply to live in La Casa because of “the environment of the dorm.”  Both Alexandra and Yolanda explained how having a small, set group of familiar faces in the dorm who all share a common passion make La Casa a community. This community atmosphere was prevalent prior to their movie viewing; as students trickled in, they all caught up on their days in casual conversation – something any college student would do at the end of a long day – except they spoke in Spanish.  The students all appeared comfortable speaking with one another, unlike students in the firm structure of a forced classroom partner or group activity.  This is what makes the La Casa experience so unique and valuable – it is an opportunity to voluntarily speak a foreign language about any topic you wish.

A variety of events throughout the year bring the students of La Casa and those of the Boston College community together.  Even students like Alexandra, who come with their own cultural experiences, are able to experience something new.  “We watch Spanish movies but I usually have seen movies in English so I don’t know them,” explains Alexandra.  Throughout the year, there are movie nights, themed meals, board games, and crafts.  Evelin says she is trying to get the students more involved in designing the activities and organizing the events.  “Last year I think I just organized events and they just came but I am going to share my responsibilities with them,” she explains.  Yolanda, for example, wants to have dance lessons and is planning an event for La Casa.  Even simple tasks such as asking for volunteers to put up the bulletin board in the lounge and sending emails help the students because as Evelin explains, “They are just using the language…and if they don’t really practice, then they won’t really know what they’re talking about.”  Whether the events challenge students to explore something they are unfamiliar with or to simply get to know their floor mates better, they provide another opportunity for speaking the language beyond the walls of the classroom and their suite.

The simple enthusiasm of the students at La Casa Hispanica can be seen both verbally and in their actions.  Whether they are watching a movie, cooking a meal, or just catching up on the day, the students are constantly utilizing their Spanish language to deepen their comfort and explore the many different cultures.  The benefit of the house is immense and the students are truly able to grow as learners, culturally aware members, and comfortable Spanish speakers of the Boston College community.

 

                                          Works Cited

Botti-Lodorica, Yolanda. Personal interview. 23 September 2013.

Dewey, Dan P. “A Comparison of Reading Development by
       Learners of Japanese in Intensive Domestic Immersion
       and Study Abroad Contexts.” Studies in Second Language
       Acquisition 26.2 (2004): 303-27. ProQuest. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Gammarr, Evelin. Personal interview. 23 September 2013.

Garcia-Amaya, Lorenzo. “Second Language Fluency and Cognition:
       The Study of Spanish Second Language Development in an
       Overseas Immersion Program and an at-Home Foreign
       Language Classroom.” Indiana University, 2012. Ann Arbor:
       iv. ProQuest. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Tinoco, Alexandra. Personal interview. 29 September 2013.