Uver Rodriguez and Sophia Taggart learned a lot about each other March 24 over the lunch hour. Both enjoy soccer and have specific countries they would like to visit someday.
Rodriguez, a sophomore at the University of South Dakota, will be teaching Taggart, a junior at Vermillion High School, about how to hold a conversation in Spanish. It is part of a course-embedded service-learning project for his Advanced Oral Practice I course at USD.
“I find it a good way to involve what I am learning in class and put it into practice and help others,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez and other USD students in SPAN 411 will make the trip over to VHS over the next three Tuesdays to interact with VHS’s Spanish III students.
In her first year at the university, Laura Vidler, professor and chair of the Modern Languages and Linguistics Department, has made service-learning projects a requirement in her Advanced Oral Practice course.
Vidler’s goal is to have the projects challenge students in a real-world setting while also being a “mutually beneficial” activity.
“It’s a 400-level class in conversation,” Vidler said. “This is the only class where they focus exclusively on conversation. They’re learning about different modes of conversation, whether it’s interpersonal or presentational.”
In February, Vidler led a team of students to Sioux City for service-learning. Students worked at the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, providing translations services to help citizens with tax forms.
The experiences can be unique for each student, who can choose group trips or individual projects. It is about challenging the language-learning status quo.
“The main thing service-learning brings to this course is an authentic conversational experience,” Vidler said. “Instead of just talking to each other all the time in class, we are trying to put them in an authentic experience. For example, in this case, there is not blanks to fill in. There are not tests. Real people having real conversation, getting to know each other.”
Rodriguez attended both the Sioux City trip and the VHS class visit. He said the service-learning projects blend his love of volunteering with language learning.
Both of his parents are from Guatemala. Though Rodriguez has a bilingual background, he sees his fellow students struggle.
“That’s something I have noticed in both high school and college classes,” Rodriguez said. “There really isn’t conversation classes to build this advanced oral practice.”
Taggart admittedly is not the best Spanish speaker in her class. She has had three different teachers in three years of Spanish classes.
She said having people who want to hold conversations will only advance her learning experience.
“The hardest part is actually talking to them,” Taggart said. “Spanish is a lot different when you are working in the class and doing different projects… It’s hard to come up with things on the spot.”
The fact that few classes teach day-to-day conversation is concerning for Sarah Stormo, a first-year Spanish teacher at VHS. She said most students in upper-level Spanish courses have mastered grammar and writing. Speaking, however, is a whole different ball game.
“Having it broken down into smaller moments, rather than just listening to me will help,” Stormo said. “Also, having students who went through the same thing, are going through classes, and know the struggle of school is good for being relatable.”
Like learning an instrument, learning a language takes a lot of practice, Vidler said. The difference in American education, however, is language learning does not start until middle school, compared to band classes in elementary school.
During their time with VHS students, conversations revolved around the students first meeting one another. Vidler expects those conversations to continue growing.
“They can fill in blanks. You can see their brains going,” Vidler said. “Listening usually comes first. Speaking usually comes last. It’s usually where you need the most practice. Language learning takes a really long time.”
(Photo: Sophomore Uver Rodriguez introduces himself to Vermillion High School junior Sophia Taggart as a part of a service-learning experience for SPAN 411 Advanced Oral Practice March 24. Nathan Ellenbecker / The Volante)