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More than Just a Second Language - Service Learning

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Everyone knows that the sole means to attain profound knowledge of a language is through immersion. Speaking the language with other individuals such as classroom peers and instructors is a wonderful practice.

But is there a way to even improve this experience? Researchers and teachers are currently seeking ways to expand the immersion technique.

Francisco Salgado-Robles, lecturer in Hispanic Studies, believes the answer to this question is to get the students outside of the classroom.

Salgado-Robles is an advocate of service learning, which is producing positive educational experiences in many departments at campuses across the globe.

“Service learning,” he defines, “is experiential education that engages students in activities that address human and community needs together. It is conducted through structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development.”

In other words, it is a way to get students out of their desks and into another learning environment – one where they can simultaneously improve their conversation skills and participate in community service.

“From what the literature shows and from what I have experienced” Salgado-Robles began, “I believe that incorporating service learning into the language classroom engages students in responsible and challenging actions for the common good.”

He added, “It provides the students with structured opportunities to reflect critically on their service experience, to expand their awareness and understanding of social problems, and, overall, it enables them to learn from a different segment of society.”

Thus, while students are expanding their communicative skills, they are also learning, he said, “the meaning of service, patience, and cross-cultural understanding.”

Salgado-Robles first became interested in the benefits of service learning during his graduate studies at the University of Florida. He investigated the extent to which learners of Spanish acquired variable structures of language and concluded that students who participated in service learning during their sojourn abroad experience had a stronger grasp of Spanish language variation at the end of the term.

After graduating in 2011 with a PhD in Hispanic Linguistics, Salgado-Robles moved to Lexington and began teaching Spanish and linguistic courses at the University of Kentucky. It was a beneficial and exciting move for Salgado-Robles because he was able to develop a Spanish service learning educational program in Lexington with the support of his colleagues.

During his three semesters at the University of Kentucky, Salgado-Robles has made tremendous efforts to engage the Hispanic community in Lexington in a cooperative educational program.

Students in Salgado-Robles’ courses work with a variety of partners across the city, with groups such as the Center for Family and Community Services and the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

“At the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, the students are usually door greeters at a bilingual tax help service, which helps administer a free legal consultation for migrant workers. It’s a fruitful experience for the students,” he explained.

“In this community placement,” Salgado-robles explained, “the students – especially those with no prior experience with Hispanic cultures – easily perceive sociocultural differences.”

“They maintain endless conversations about the community members’ cultural customs, habits, festivities, and so forth. The students usually come to class telling their classmates the stories and gossip they learned from the people they were helping.”

There is also space for students in more specific disciplines to integrate service learning into their educational experience. Advanced medical students are able to develop their communicative and translation skills thanks to Salgado-Robles’ relationship with the Samaritan’s Touch Clinic at the UK Hospital.

The Fayette County School System also has a fantastic emphasis on bilingual education in elementary and secondary schools. Many education students in Salgado-Robles courses work with the Spanish immersion programs at Maxwell Spanish Immersion Elementary School and Dunbar High School.

Other partners in Salgado-Robles’ service learning initiatives include the Village Branch Public Library, Ashland: The Henry Clay Estate, the YMCA, and Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary Church.

The list does not end here because Salgado-Robles encourages his students to seek out other community partners for group projects. The students in his Spanish for Business Professionals class last spring and fall met with Hispanic business owners and associates throughout the city.

But what about learning a language outside Lexington?

Although Salgado-Robles has many community partners near the University of Kentucky, there are simply more opportunities for community and language engagement for students in other parts of the world.

Knowing this, Salgado-Robles initiated a new and successful study abroad program last summer, “Cultivating Intercultural Competence through Service-Learning in Seville.” He took fifteen undergraduate students to his hometown of Seville, Spain where he explored the effects of service learning in a very different setting from Lexington, Kentucky.

There are a few differences in conducting service learning in Seville. First of all, there are many more community partners in Seville and southern Spain. Students can work with any type of community group that interests them and benefits their professional careers, from education to biology to marketing.

Second, there are broader language immersion opportunities in a native Spanish-speaking area.

“In Spain,” he explained, “it’s a Spanish-only policy. It’s not even a policy, it’s a reality. Southern Spain has little exposure to foreign people, so not very many people in the region speak English.”

Learning another language, however, is not only about mastering grammar and pronunciation. Students also need to be familiar and comfortable with the cultural components of the language and this is the primary emphasis behind Salgado-Robles service learning programs in Lexington and Seville.

Understanding and appreciating cultural diversity is another important learning objective for Salgado-Robles’ service learning programs. The cultural, socioeconomic, and linguistic experience is diverse amongst the different neighborhoods in Seville and he wants the students to experience these differences during their time in Spain.

The broader region of southern Spain was another opportunity to expose the students to cultural and linguistic variation. “Every weekend we went out of Seville,” Salgado-Robles explained. “One weekend week we went to Granada, visited gypsies’ caves and had the opportunity to learn about their culture and language (calé), one week in the south of Portugal we could expand our knowledge about the border language portuñol (half Portuguese, half “Español”), and another weekend was in Gibraltar, where we could see the effects of language contact, Spanglish. I chose these places because they were contact zones, where there was a fusion of language and cultures.”

From Lexington to Seville, it is that fusion of cultures that enhances the educational experience for Salgado-Robles’ students.

And just as Salgado-Robles recognizes that working with others is beneficial, he too has learned that the 21st  classroom can and should exist beyond the campus walls.