Speaking Spanish for the Community

“Me llamo Kelly. ¿Cuál es su nombre?”

“Soy Juan.”

“¿Juan, cómo está usted?”

“No tan bien.”

“Oh, lo siento, ¿qué pasó?

Junior Spanish and international studies double major Kelly Fuhs is not shy, but she is not forcefully bold either. Rather, she is calmly outgoing, and that trait has helped her use a second language in a meaningful way for a relatively new class. Complete strangers have become new friends to Fuhs as she has served others with Spanish outside of Hope’s campus.

Junior Kelly Fuhs at the Community Kitchen

Enrolled in “Spanish for the Community” and serving at the Community Kitchen Free Lunch program hosted by Community Action House at Hope-neighbor Western Theological Seminary, Fuhs recently introduced herself to a middle-aged gentleman named Juan and asked about his day. It was not going well, Juan said. Fuhs’ eyes and voice conveyed concern, and she gently asked Juan why, sliding easily into a chair next to him to begin a Spanish conversation with the Holland resident who was preparing to eat his lunch.  

Juan did most of the talking so Fuhs listened and listened. Often she would nod; occasionally she would interject. When the conversation began to wane, she asked Juan if she could pray for him.

,” he said.

Oh Dios, ayuda a Juan….” Fuhs started.

“Spanish for the Community” is a 300-level course created and offered by Dr. Berta Carrasco, assistant professor of Spanish, for its second time ever.  It gives students the opportunity to apply their Spanish skills in various interpersonal and organizational ways with Holland-area charitable organizations like the Community Kitchen, Community Action House, the Holland Free Health Clinic, and Holland Community Health Clinic. In doing so, students gain enhanced language ability, confidence and a sense of purpose.

“Basically, I came in thinking I was going to be serving food,” Fuhs explains. “But since there was a lot of volunteers to do that already, I help with translating menus and the code of conduct policies in Spanish. But most of the time, I just come in and talk to people and hear about their days and their lives and just kind of go from table to table listening to people.”

So, why is that meaningful for Fuhs?

“Every time I walk into this place, I’m welcomed,” says Fuhs, who hopes to work for a non-profit organization someday. “Everyone treats me like family and they’re like family as well. They all want to talk. Getting to sit down and hear about their lives and about their struggles and joys and just getting to pray with them and really have that small time to experience life with them, it’s an honor honestly. People just want to be heard. I didn’t come in here thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to save people.’ I have a lot to learn from them.”

Dr. Berta Carrasco

Carrasco created the class for students like Fuhs because she wanted to fill a gap. While there are plenty of Spanish offerings in literature and culture in the Hope curriculum, there was not a practical offering that engaged Hope students in the Holland community, which is 38% Latino. “Our courses are dynamic, but we needed a class that goes into the community,” the professor says.

Students spend the first five weeks of the semester in the classroom discussing (always in Spanish) what it means to serve, why they want to serve, how complicated and difficult it can be. They also learn about interpersonal communication styles in the Latino culture, how to be cognizant of direct vs indirect communication, such as how to “read” body language and vocal tones. Then, for the rest of the semester, for six hours a week, they speak Spanish in the community.

“Our students have worked for years on their Spanish,” the professor says, “and with this class, they can use it immediately outside the classroom. They have ways to use a tool they’ve worked really hard on right now for good use.”

“Their job is not writing a lot of academic papers but that doesn’t mean this class is not rigorous,” Carrasco says. “It’s rigorous in a different sense. This requires students to go outside of the box and be okay with being uncomfortable, be okay with mistakes and be okay with someone who is feeling great, and someone who is not.”

“I love taking literature classes and learning more about the technique of the language, but there’s something really special about being able to take a class to learn skills about how to communicate with people within the culture and then interact and actually do it,” Fuhs confirms.

Rebekah Rainwater, right, and a client of the Holland Free Clinic.

Senior classmate Rebekah Rainwater concurs. She is a Spanish major on a pre-physical therapy track and as such, she is grateful for learning how to succeed in intercultural communication, especially since she hopes to work in health-care settings with a wide range cultures, races and socioeconomic statuses.

“Working at the Holland Free Health Clinic for this class has showed me how to accommodate for those patients who do not speak English, who cannot read, and who have had little to no formal education,” Rainwater says.  “As a future health care provider, I will need to continue to practice the skills which I am developing now in order to successfully serve my patients.”

With those words, Carrasco knows her teaching objectives are being met. She wants her students to know that their language skills are useful now, not just some nebulous time out in the future and not just away from campus on a study abroad trip.

“Our students have worked for years on their Spanish,” the professor says, “and with this class, they can use it immediately outside the classroom. They have ways to use a tool they’ve worked really hard on right now for good use.”

New Lessons in Old Norse

Few graduate schools in the U.S. teach Old Norse, an ancient language with Germanic origins, and fewer liberal arts colleges offer it still. But this past academic year, Dr. Lee Forester brought the language of Vikings and Icelanders and even Tolkien fans to a Hope classroom, using modern techniques to teach age-old, runic vocabulary and grammar.

At first, Forester, a professor of German who also studied Old Norse during his graduate school days, decided to offer the new yearlong course for personal reasons – his son, who is enrolled at Hope, was interested. “But his interest made me realize others could want this class, too,” the professor says.

Dr. Lee Forester, professor of German, offered new classes in Old Norse this past academic year

Sure enough, others did. At total of fourteen students enrolled in this first-time offering, receiving elective credit. Most of the students had some German background and many, it turned out, were J.R.R. Tolkien fans. What does the lord of The Lord of the Rings have to do with Old Norse?

“Old Norse has an older stage of its writing system that pre-dates Latin called runes,” explains Forester. “Runes are a form of writing carved in stone or wood, using mostly straight lines because it was much easier to carve those as opposed to circles or curves. These are found all over Sweden and Norway.

“The students know about runes if they are Tolkien and Lord of the Rings fans,” he continues. “Tolkien created his own runic languages for his Middle Earth series, based very much on his work with Germanic languages. Tolkien was a Germanic linguist himself.”

An example of runes. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Creating this new class – offered as German 295 – was no small task and became a true labor of love for Forester. Finding a current, modern textbook was his first challenge. Few are in print. He quickly ruled out one that dated back to 1850 and found the only text he deemed suitable, The Viking Language Series, by Jesse Byock, a Scandinavian scholar and archeologist from UCLA.

Teaching grammar first and then vocabulary later, Forester got both creative and resourceful in his lesson-planning and instruction. He used Quizlet, a website that combines technology and language instruction, to test students on 28 Old Norse word lists. Then he hired a tutor from Iceland who lives in Denmark – Thor Jōhannsson – to speak and record those words so students could hear an authentic pronunciation as they read along. For added instructional help, Forester and his students also uploaded pictures alongside each Old Norse word to give visual support while Thor gave aural accuracy.

“Thor guest-taught a class via Skype from Denmark one day, too, which was very nice,” says Forester. “There is a huge demand right now for tutors of Icelandic. We were fortunate to have him.”

A page out of Byock’s book, Viking Language 2 (with Forester’s handwritten notes)

Then, an added affirmation of Forester’s teaching came from out of the blue when Byock, the text author, contacted Forester unsolicited. Byock had found the Hope prof’s Quizlet pages online and thought they were outstanding. Now Byock is using them for his classes at UCLA.

Forester hopes to offer Old Norse again but will take a year off. While he and his students enjoyed the new work (though he termed it “the hardest language some will ever encounter but they were up for the challenge”), he says he’ll wait for a new crop of interested students to grow large enough for a full class. With the popularity of Vikings history, Icelandic tourism, and, of course, all things Tolkien, it most likely won’t take long to fill another Old Norse class, when next time he’ll weave more old Nordic and Icelandic culture into his lessons.

So for now, it’s not vertu blessaður (goodbye); it’s þar til næst (until next time).