Learn from the Experts: Becoming Bilingual and Culturally Competent

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Imagine the confusion of being dropped into a classroom where no one speaks your language and then being asked to complete an assignment you can’t understand. While this may seem like an impossible task to some, it’s a reality for many young students in the Coastal Bend. This is why Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi has teamed up with West Oso High School to create “Learn from the Experts,” a 10-week after-school program that allows Spanish-speaking high school student and English-speaking Islander students to help each other become bilingual.

“One of the roles of education is to teach students that differences in opinions, behaviors, and cultures are to be appreciated, not feared,” said Dr. Mara Barbosa, assistant professor of Spanish and Linguistics and Learn from the Experts founder. “There is no better way to teach our students the benefits of diversity than to introduce them to individuals with whom they can exchange knowledge and develop intercultural competence.”

Here’s how Learn from the Experts works. In the West Oso Library, Islanders learning beginner level Spanish and West Oso high school students sit in pairs as Islander Spanish majors – those who are taking upper-level Spanish classes – walk around the room monitoring the groups to ensure interactions go smoothly if language barriers arise. During the first half of each class, Islanders teach their partners English, and in the second half of the class, the roles reverse as the high school students become the “experts” who teach Islanders Spanish.

“This program proves to West Oso students that their language is something valued in our society,” said Barbosa. “Also, our students develop a sense of social responsibility through the program’s outreach for social justice.”

Interactions are full of compassion and patience, as each student works to navigate the difficulty of learning a new language and the hardship of teaching their own.

“Everyone is super friendly and nice, and it’s been baby steps, but I’m speaking more English and gaining confidence,” shared Homero Castillo, a student at West Oso High School. “I feel very happy and proud that I am able to help college students learn another language and have them help me become bilingual.”

Isabella Ramos, senior criminal justice major at the Island University, feels this extra-credit opportunity allows her to learn Spanish much faster than she would otherwise.

“One of my goals is to try to go a whole session without using Google Translate, and it’s been hard, but we’re working towards it,” said Ramos. “Also, it’s been incredible to see my partner accelerate in speaking English.”

During one class, the high school students read a piece of English literature aloud and underlined words they didn’t know, while Islanders explained the definition or pronunciation. This, along with English writing strategies, are especially important to high school students who need these skills to do well on state standardized test.

At the end of the 10-week program, all the students will attend an awards ceremony, where they will celebrate their newly formed friendships, accomplishments, and academic growth.

Barbosa’s future hope is that Learn from the Experts will become a one-credit course. More than that, she plans to begin collecting data before and after the program to better serve all participants.