Language Immersion and Speech Pathology

melanie turnerMelanie Turner is a 3rd year studying in Spain through UVA in Valencia for spring 2018. See her thoughts on how her time abroad has influenced her experience in her major!

At UVA, I study Speech Pathology in addition to Spanish. Throughout my time in Valencia, I’ve realized that my experience as a second language-learner might mimic the experience of people with communication disorders. In the same way that patients with Broca’s Aphasia struggle to explain their thoughts fluently, I sometimes find myself grasping hopelessly for words to express my ideas. Like stutterers, who might initially hesitate to speak up among strangers, I sometimes become timid among native Spaniards. Similarly to some people with a voice disorders, my inability to speak English sometimes makes me feel like I’ve lost a piece of my identity. While I certainly do not understand what it’s like to have these communication disorders, I do believe that my time in Spain has shaped how I view speech therapy. As I approach the halfway point of my semester abroad, I thought I’d share here are 7 things I’ve learned about speech pathology through language immersion:

1. Patience is crucial: When I first arrived in Spain, I was discouraged by my inability to speak fluently. In English, I enjoy finding the best word to explain my ideas, and in Spanish I frequently resort to the same limited vocabulary. I expected to see rapid progress within the first few weeks, but even after two months, it is still sometimes difficult for me to pinpoint exactly how I have improved. At times when I feel like I can’t see results, it’s easy to want to give up. In the same way, a speech pathology patient who
progresses slowly might become frustrated and want to halt therapy sessions, and a speech pathologist might lose heart when therapy goals are not reached. My language immersion experience has taught me that I should set ambitious but realistic goals, and that I should be patient to see these objectives realized.

2. Encouragement is key: When I feel frustrated by slow progress, I greatly appreciate verbal encouragement. I remember almost every time someone has specifically complimented my Spanish skills: When I first arrived, my host family’s daughter applauded my accent. When I visited with a pastor of a local church, he told me that my Spanish was advanced. When I went to a café with some of the youth from that church, they commented on how I spoke Spanish fluently. Just last night at dinner, my host parents mentioned that my level has improved since arriving. All of these comments remind me that language immersion is worthwhile, and they motivate me to keep trying. As a future speech pathologist, I hope I can remember how much these sporadic affirmations meant to me and provide the same kind of feedback to my clients.

3. Improvement is NOT passive: Another myth I believed before coming to Spain was
that just by being here I would become fluent. Certainly, being surrounded by the language solidifies certain skills, especially aural comprehension. However, language mastery does not happen without an intentional effort. If I want a word to become part of my vernacular, I have to consciously incorporate it into conversation. If I want to sound like a native, I have to speak to natives. If I want to learn new manners of expression, I have to study them. The same is true in speech pathology: clients have to do their homework if they want to improve, and clinicians have to put forth effort to plan the most appropriate and effective evidence-based practices. Improvement is possible, but it is an active process.

4. Language difficulties have a social dimension: Those who know me know that I am rather introverted. Small talk is exhausting for me, and back-to-back social interactions can wear me out. This poses a unique challenge for language immersion, which is inherently social. When I first arrived, all of the “getting to know you” conversations were taxing, and even now, there are some times when I choose not to add to conversations because expressing my thoughts in Spanish feels tiring. I imagine that people with communication disorders have similar experiences. Remaining silent might feel easier than mustering up the strength to communicate an idea, especially for introverts with speech/language challenges. Nevertheless, just as I would never improve my Spanish if I never spoke, these patients would never advance if they didn’t attempt to communicate. If I ever work with clients who share my tendency towards introversion, I hope I can affirm all the wonderful parts of being an introvert (for there are many!) while also encouraging them to step outside of their comfort zone for the sake of their
speech/language skills.

5. Correction is appreciated: One thing that I greatly appreciate when I am conversing with native speakers is correction. This past week, a friend from church invited me to her apartment for brunch with some other girls from church. One of these ladies has a degree in music education, and during our conversation, there were several times when she corrected my Spanish. When I thanked her, she laughed and apologized, saying that her tendency to correct is her “teacher’s flaw.” However, I insisted that my thanks were genuine; I would never improve if I were not told what I was doing wrong. While I recognize that if I were corrected all the time I would probably become disheartened, I also need to remember that most of the time, I desire this kind of instruction. In the same way, speech pathology clients – who want to improve their speech/language/voice just as much as I want to improve my Spanish – will probably welcome constructive feedback.

6. The process is never “finished”: Ever since I started taking Spanish classes in middle school, I imagined that studying abroad would be the culmination of language learning. After a semester in a Spanish-speaking country, I would finally be able to call myself “fluent.” Since arriving, I have realized how wrong this assumption was. Even my English is not completely “fluent” – in my translation class, we literally dedicated a class period to learning English idioms! I may never feel completely comfortable calling myself “fluent” in Spanish, but that is to be expected: language is a skill that I will improve throughout my whole life. Similarly, a person with a communication disorder may never be totally rid of the problem; for example, a stutterer may develop tactics to deal with stuttering without actually eliminating the root problem. Nevertheless, the lack of a clear ending point should not discourage the process.

7. The process is REWARDING: The aforementioned points may make both language learning and speech pathology seem overwhelmingly difficult; however, there is also incredible joy that comes with each of these processes! While some days progress feels slow, other days I find myself jumping up and down when I correctly use a Spanish idiom, audibly cheering myself on when I recollect new vocabulary words, or smiling broadly when I formulate sentences using tricky grammatical tenses. Furthermore, as I
learn a new language, the doors open to establish relationships that otherwise would not have been possible. While this is slightly different than what people with communication disorders experience, successful speech therapy can also open or reopen doors to new and/or old friendships, and even small steps towards an end goal can be thrilling. I am incredibly grateful for the gift of the Spanish language and for the opportunity to practice it, and I look forward to practicing a profession that is also highly gratifying. Although not everyone is a speech pathologist, I hope this blog shed some light on the
broad advantages of language immersion programs. Feel free to share any additional
thoughts about language immersion in the comments below!

Until next time,
Melanie 🙂

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