Episode 16 Reframing Language Perceptions: A Conversation with Edgar Serrano

It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 16 Reframing Language Perceptions: A Conversation with Edgar Serrano

“How do you think our world is going to work? Make sure you know how to connect with others, and how that will be important in order for you to be successful and to impact the world.”

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My guest for Episode 16, Edgar Serrano, knows the power of story. His stories are–as ultimately are all stories–ones of language and culture and experience and identity. You can glimpse where his stories come from in his biography.

What is your story–yours uniquely–the story that comes from your personal experiences… your culture… your language?

Edgar has a powerful gift for story; you will hear it in this podcast. He is aware that his history, his experiences, and his reflections on his growing identity are signposts not only for him on his life-journey but are gifts to bring others to reflection on their own lives. Edgar prompts his students, and all of us, to become aware of our language, our culture–our identity–and in doing so, to become aware and respectful of the language, culture, and identity of others.

Edgar reframes language perceptions through gentle personal stories shared to make a profound point: we make assumptions, sometimes damaging ones, about many aspects of our lives and the lives and identities of others.  We may decide we do not need or are not capable of learning another language. We may judge certain people, because of their languages and cultures, to be not worthy of our attention.

By telling stories and asking and inviting others to tell theirs, Edgar provides opportunities to reframe perceptions, to bring all of us closer together, and to open new doors to opportunity and personal growth to his students and to all of us. His is a powerful paradigm, a generous and caring one. Check out his biography, and with it the resources that continue to share his story with you.

What do your stories tell about your language, culture, and identity? With whom do you share your stories, and why? How do you connect with others, to make an impact on the world?

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It’s About Language – Episode 16 – Reframing Language Perceptions: A Conversation with Edgar Serrano

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Episode 16 – Reframing Language Perceptions: A Conversation with Edgar Serrano – Audiogram with Captions


0:00:00.8 Edgar Serrano: I have a lot of people that are of political science and they’re going to be making policies. Okay, what about diplomacy? How do you think our world is going to work? You’re going to be working in Washington. You’re going to be creating policies. You’re going to be interacting not only with the local people, but national and international ones. So just make sure that you know how you are going to connect with that and how that is going to be important in order to really be successful in what you do and how you can impact the world.

0:00:38.9 Norah Jones: Hi, I’m Nora Jones. Welcome to It’s About Language. This podcast connects language and culture to life, learning, and hope. You’ll experience insightful conversations with creative leaders in the fields of education, business, arts, and science. My guests shed light on the impact of language and culture on individuals and society as they share their stories and experiences. You’ll be informed and inspired as we explore how language and culture make us human and bring hope in the midst of a challenging world. Well, it is my great pleasure today to introduce and present to all of you my dear friend, Edgar Serrano. Hi, Edgar.

0:01:25.4 Edgar Serrano: Hi, Nora. Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure being here with you today.

0:01:28.9 Norah Jones: Oh, I just so much enjoy our conversation always. And you are in beautiful Mississippi right now where you live and work at the University of Mississippi, correct?

0:01:41.9 Edgar Serrano: That’s right. We are here in Northeast Mississippi in Oxford where the University of Mississippi is located.

0:01:50.3 Norah Jones: Now, Edgar, you are an educator of world language, specifically of Spanish, correct? Tell our listeners the kinds of educational settings in which you present languages and for what ages.

0:02:04.0 Edgar Serrano: I’m very lucky because I have two different worlds where I can really interact with. I teach at the University of Mississippi. That is my full time job teaching basic Spanish to freshmen. That will be Monday, Wednesday and Fridays. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have the great pleasure to work with little kids, 3 year olds to eighth graders. So that’s what I do. Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the university, Tuesday, Thursdays with the little ones.

0:02:37.2 Norah Jones: Wow. So you get a wide age range. How does that feel? What’s the differentiation there? And as an educator and bringing in your background is as a person that has been in industry. How does that work for you? What are the differences and similarities?

0:02:58.7 Edgar Serrano: There are so many things, but the energy that you get from the little ones is amazing. They just absorb everything. They learn it. They don’t question you. You tell them something and they go with it. They just are sponges, so they absorb everything and they are full of energy. And that gives me energy as well. And with the older students, it’s always a different type of setting. And it’s more like a mindset for me where I can use my previous experience as in the sales industry to to help them grow and to change them. Those mindsets that sometimes you can encounter when you’re an older language learner, many times they come with different type of perspectives or the mindset is in a different set where they believe that it’s too hard to learn to learn a language.

0:03:54.7 Edgar Serrano: So I have more of a challenge there to really help them motivate or to get them more engaged into the classroom in order to really have an impact on their lives. So it is a little bit different.

0:04:10.0 Norah Jones: Thank you. You mentioned that their perception or about the difficulty of language. I imagine that based on their experience as young adults, that they may have other perceptions about language. Can you talk to us a little bit about some of those perceptions?

0:04:28.4 Edgar Serrano: I know. Yes. Every time I get there, to the classroom, when it’s face to face or even now on Zoom, I just see those faces and I know that they are there because they want to achieve something in life, they want to change this world. But when I ask them about the language, they just tell me, “Well, we are taking it because it’s a requirement. I can’t… I don’t need really a foreign language because now we have a Translator” Or, “I’m too old” or, “I have an accent because I’m from the South.” So all these mindsets and actually, it’s interesting because I was reading a book. It’s called “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” I don’t know if you ever heard of Carol Dweck?

0:05:16.6 Norah Jones: Yes, absolutely.

0:05:17.9 Edgar Serrano: And she really talks a lot about how our mindset is sometimes is a fixed mindset and how we can sometimes change it in order to achieve new things. So those are the things that I usually encounter with them. I always find it fascinating and interesting on how we can connect and to, from my perspective of an instructor, to really help them see beyond learning a language and how they can really take the challenge and transform it and to conquer it.

0:05:53.7 Norah Jones: So what are some of the pathways you take? Because that has to do with ability and we can chat for days about the natural ability of language…

0:06:03.1 Edgar Serrano: I know.

0:06:04.6 Norah Jones: Or what happens with adults versus young people. And then the, “I’m taking it for requirement, but I don’t actually need it for my life.” That’s how you started out the I see them wanting to enter into their lives, but they’re not connecting the language to their lives. What do you do when you see that?

0:06:22.7 Edgar Serrano: Well, it’s not easy. And I think many times I have to really start reading a lot and many times you have to know also yourself. I have the fortune that this is my second career. So before I was in sales, so I always learned that I have to really give value to somebody in order to purchase my product. So when I was learning to teach, I think I started realizing that teaching is selling and selling is teaching. So I had to really help them provide with those values. And I’m reading a lot of resources and making sure that there was like a switch. There is a great book that I always base my… These findings or the way that I can interact with my students. And it’s called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. I don’t know if you ever heard of it. It is with Chip Heath and Dan Heath…

0:07:22.6 Norah Jones: I’ve heard but not read it.

0:07:25.3 Edgar Serrano: It is wonderful because, many times we come with these perspectives. We have these ideas of, “We’re emotional,” or, “we are rational.” “We are planners. We’re doers.” But many times we don’t continue on what we want to do. We know that learning a language is important, but many times we think it’s hard. So in order to make that, I think as a Teacher, you have to really convince but not convince. You have to kind of connect with them with a feeling on how that is going to be important as a person in part of them, because a lot of the decisions that we make are more towards facing our identity, who we are. So language is very important for us. It is part of us, it’s what it makes us. We communicate certain ways and our accent is from certain places. But when we can connect with the student by basically giving them a path, for example, something that I can think of is when you want to go to to the gym.

0:08:55.5 Edgar Serrano: You know that it’s good for you, but many times we don’t know exactly what to do. So we need to have somebody to kind of guide you, “These are the exercises that you need for your back. These are the exercises that you need for your legs. This is how you make progress. You should work this long. You should eat this part.” Because if we don’t know it… We know that it’s important to work out, but doing it is hard. So it has to be kind of part of you. I think one of the examples that they do in the book that I really like is that I think it was in St. Lucia where they had a parrot that it was very endemic of the island. But it was disappearing and people were not doing anything about it. And that is because it was not important for them. So this kid started making T-shirts, started connecting, but he started making it to see that this parrot was part of the identity of St. Lucia. It was part of them. The parrot meant St. Lucia. So in this way, he started connecting with people, they started saving the parrot.

0:10:12.9 Edgar Serrano: So many times I think in language, you need to change this perspective with the students and show them what they really they can do with language. Many times I ask them, “What are you studying? What is your career? What do you want to do?” And everybody wants to make money. Everybody wants to be successful. And some of my students at the university, they are in political science, psychology, biology. So they’re going to become doctors, lawyers. So many times I ask them, “Okay, so how are you going to help people? How do you think language is going to be good for you?” So, for example, if you’re a Psychologist and if you believe… Do you think that you can use a foreign language and they say, “Yes, but I don’t know how.” And I say, “Well, what about if you have a client that doesn’t speak English? Do you think that he or she is going to trust a translator or somebody else to really communicate their deep feelings? So if you speak the same language, I think you can create a connection and you really can have a bigger impact on the life of that person.”

0:11:49.1 Edgar Serrano: And they just go, “Oh, wow, that will… That I never thought about that, you know, that is true.” Or in the business world, too. Many times we have all these great people that are doing finances that they are doing social media. They want to connect. But I ask them, “Okay, what is going to happen once you work in a company or create your own company and you have already reached the distribution channels that you have?” And they say, “Well, we have to find new channels.” I say, “Where do you think those channels are? Where are you going to find new customers?”

0:12:30.8 Edgar Serrano: And they’re like, “Well. I guess internationally.” “Well, how are you going to communicate with them?” “Well, everybody speaks English.” I say, “Yes, they already speak English, but not really. If you really look at it, 75% of the world do not speak English. And then when you say speak English, what do you really mean? What type of conversation can you have with somebody? The proficiency levels of that person, are not that high. Or if you can learn a language, you can really interact and create a relationship because we do business with friends. We do business with those people who we connect with, that we understand. And that is the important part of it.” So they go, “Wow, that’s true.” So we are making it more personal. It’s becoming part of the identity of what they really want to do or they want to achieve, because then it becomes important. It becomes something of value for them that they really want to do. And something else that I learned is that once you reach onto that connection, you can always tell them how much they really already know.

0:13:51.9 Norah Jones: Oh, talk more about that. How much more they really know.

0:13:56.1 Edgar Serrano: Yeah, because they said, “Well, yeah, that’s great but I just started learning the language and it will take me years to know that.” Because I think that perception that we have about language, somebody say, “Oh, I speak another language.” And you immediately think that it’s like a world there of words and language and connections that it becomes very overwhelming. But if you just tell them, for example, “Look at words that… ” I even do this with the little ones and I tell them, “Look at this word.” And I write, I say, “I want to write in Spanish, okay, and you tell me if you know it.” And the word is hospital. And they say, “Well, that’s English. That’s hospital.” I say, “Well, actually, this hospital is exactly the same word.” [laughter] And they go, “Oh wow.” And I write a lot of cognates for them. And even one time I wrote this word, it was tortilla. And they said, “Oh, tortilla.” I said, “Well, we have tortilla.” And she said, “Oh, even spells the same in English.” [chuckle]

0:14:57.1 Edgar Serrano: I said, “Actually, that’s Spanish.” But it was a little kid, that he was only six year olds and they were making these connections because they were just amazed of how many words they already knew. And when you tell a college student too that, “Listen, you have to go with the 20-80 rule. You have to learn 20% of the language in order to speak 80%.”

0:15:22.9 Norah Jones: Interesting insight.

0:15:23.8 Edgar Serrano: “Do you think you can do that?” And they just go like, “Oh, really? Oh, wow.” I say, “Just think about the verbs that you use every day. What do you do every day? You eat, you drink, you talk, you walk. So as long as you know those and you know how to express them in different tenses and you enrich them with your vocabulary and make the connection, I think you are going to be making a big progress.”

0:15:52.0 Norah Jones: Edgar, you’re talking about perceptions here of the nature of language. And that’s key. Let’s talk also about the perception of what language is used for. And then you keep bringing in that identity piece, their personal identity or the identity of the speakers. What kind of perception work do you do with the nature of how the language appears as part of identity, their own, their community, and others’ communities?

0:16:28.9 Edgar Serrano: Yes, I think many times, especially with college students, when they are learning, they think that they have to lose their English, that they have to be bilingual and one language is going to replace the other. But in reality, yes, language, speaking English is part of who you are, the region, the words that we use. And that is very important because that gives us a way of expressing our identity, the way we interact with others and it reflects the region that we grew up from, which is very, very good to share with the rest of the world, because once they learn also from other people, all their cultures, they understand that differences are perfectly fine, that we are really a diverse world, that we are all different, that just even with time, the way we perceive time. I was just in Mexico and I kept just thinking about the word aurita now and aurita meant, like five minutes, two minutes, ten minutes or maybe tomorrow or two months. And the way we perceive things is just because how we grew up and the region and the way we understand these words. It helps communicate.

0:17:57.3 Edgar Serrano: And when you understand that, you start traveling, you start interacting, you understand that they are not being disrespectful because I think… What I’m thinking is something that happened when I used to work in the business world. I used to go with with my boss to Mexico City. And when we arrived, he was very aggravated that they made us wait a long time. And that sometimes they even changed the appointments or canceled them. And for him, it was like, “They are so rude. They are so… ” We have to think of the way they do it. Mexico City is a big city and they have big challenges. And I’m actually perceiving time is different. As long as we show them that we are here, we make a connection, I think we’ll be fine.

0:18:50.0 Edgar Serrano: And another thing it’s part of that way of, “Yes. This is the way we are.” But also we need to be sensitive to others in order to make business because it has a big impact. Another example that I remember when I was in the business world is that here in the United States, if you tell somebody, “I’ll see you at noon.” You are there at noon. You will be ready at that time. You give deadlines and you believe them. But in other parts of the world, people are may not be more comfortable telling, you, “No.” And they may just say, “Yes.” And we had a case like in China. We were doing… Cutting some materials we send them over there and the people from China, they say, “Yeah. We have them ready. We have them ready.” And then our shipments were late.

0:19:42.5 Norah Jones: Interesting.

0:19:43.7 Edgar Serrano: Because they were… They didn’t want to be rude because that’s part of their identity. That is how they perceive things and the way language works for them and they don’t want to offend you. So if we need to know who we are, but also we need to understand that everybody’s different and we need to be sensitive for that because our perception may not be the same as they are.

0:20:12.7 Norah Jones: Now, talking about the perceptions and culture and you yourself, though you have lived in the United States for more than 25 years, are originally from Mexico City. And I know the pride of being from Mexico and so forth is very much part of you. How then or in what ways, if any, do you bring the perception of yourself and your heritage into your classroom or even beyond it? ‘Cause we are talking about language and identity and usage both inside and outside the classroom. Again, what about Edgar and Edgar’s background and Edgar’s perception and working with that with those that you teach, etcetera.

0:20:58.9 Edgar Serrano: I know. It has been very interesting because, like you said, I’m from Mexico City. I grew up there and growing up there, we are very welcoming country, but we’ve always seen foreigners like, “Wow! They speak another language.” I remember that I wanted to learn English because my aunt married a guy from California and he spoke English. And I just was thinking, “Oh my gosh. They are so cool.” And every time we had somebody from another country, everybody was so welcoming and they wanted to know more about it. So when I moved to the United States, I came to Mississippi to go to college. I thought I was going to have the same type of welcoming, but in reality, nobody really cared much about it. And I was just very shocked that nobody wanted to know more about Mexico or I started noticing that the things that they knew about Mexico were not a hundred percent accurate. For example, I will be… Recently, people will ask me, “Are you a DACA recipient?” And I’m like, “I don’t understand this word. Why are they asking this?”

0:22:14.2 Edgar Serrano: I started feeling that they were stereotyping me to some things that were part of it, but it was not a whole. And even with my students, when I share with them about Mexico and even when I tell them, “Okay. Let’s make a connection. Let’s see how you can you can learn this. Tell me who are the biggest partners of the United States.” They just think about China, Canada, Europe. And I said, “What about Mexico?” “Oh, Okay.” “Tell me about the richest economies in the world. Don’t mention 20. Do you know that Mexico is number 15?” They go, “No. We didn’t know that.” “Yes. And do you know that Mexico has the biggest YouTube viewers in the in the world? And that’s why a lot of YouTube now are doing their own channel in Spanish.” There are a lot of Russians doing YouTubes in Mexico, in Spanish, people from France, Germany. I saw Americans, of course. There are a lot of foreigners trying to get into that market because there is an opportunity to grow. We have a very close relationship between Mexico and the United States with with trade.

0:23:38.8 Edgar Serrano: And Mexico is a very open market. I think Mexico has more than 45 free trade agreements done in the world. So, we are closer than we think we are. But sometimes we don’t know much about it. We just tend to to go with the media and many times I feel that my identity is valued towards what the media says. And people just react very surprisingly when I share with them about how Mexico is. And I show them the new buildings. And, of course, Mexico is a beautiful country with a lot of resorts. And you can go there. But there are a lot of opportunities and growth. Mexico is a market of… It’s very loyal and they consume a lot. So…

0:24:35.3 Norah Jones: Edgar, help me to understand something. So you’re working inside of your classroom. Now, these students and the others. Adults that you alluded to a little bit there are coming from, well, the society that is paying attention to a lot of media. So you’re working within your classroom to help to reframe these perceptions. What are some other pathways that can help? Because that’s part of your investment. What are some other pathways to reframing this and coming out of some of the stereotyping or limiting?

0:25:16.5 Edgar Serrano: Many times I have to ask them, “What do you want to do?” Okay. I mean, I have a lot of people that are of political science and they’re going to be making policies. What about diplomacy? How do you think our world is going to work? You’re going to be working in Washington. You’re going to be creating policies. You’re going to be interacting not only with the local people, but national and international ones. So just make sure that you know how you are going to connect with that and how that is going to be important in order to really be successful in what you do and how you can impact the world. Because what you’re taking now is going to be important to make a difference and to create a stronger diplomacy for a world. I get people that also they’re in the CIA trying to become really special agents. So this connection and understanding exactly how our world is, is going to help them to really become a valuable member of society.

0:26:35.6 Norah Jones: Edgar, you are a member of… Leader of many organizations that are dedicated to language and cultural education, including the Mississippi Foreign Language Association and the Early Language Learning Network. How can systems… We’ve been talking about Edgar Serrano working with his students and helping to change their minds and directions. In what kinds of ways can we develop better the systems in this country to help students when they get to the age that you’ve got them there in college to have had a broader view of perceptions, both of language and of cultures?

0:27:26.7 Edgar Serrano: Yes. We have to, I think, become advocators. We have to do a lot of advocacy in order to really help them, because we need to show them how we are competing with this world. And other ones… Other countries are really creating more multilingual speakers. So as a system, as an organization, we need to keep supporting programs like the CEELO by Literacy in order to really help our students give them value and for them to reach goals and for them to really have an impact in our society. We can show them how really language is a dynamic force in order to create jobs. For example, here in Mississippi, we export about 11.5 billion dollars and about more than 400 companies called Mississippi Home. And we create about… I think the numbers that I looked was about 27,000 jobs are created from foreign investment. So we can bring jobs into our country if we really have proficient language speakers that can create those relationships in order to create jobs in your city, in your state. So as an organization, we need to really always be advocating to parents, administrators, government, everybody and show them the value that we have, because we are such a big country where English is spoken all over.

0:29:14.9 Edgar Serrano: And we sometimes we have the wrong perception that we don’t need to have the language. But language really moves mountains. We can create a… Recreate jobs with language. So as organizations, we need to start advocating for language learning at early age. Here in Mississippi, not everybody teaches in younger age. We start at about eighth, ninth grade. Which is harder for students to start learning it. I can see the difference when I teach the little ones who just absorb it and if they carry it, they are going to be better language speakers or more proficient as they grow up, where they will give them the ability to really use the language in more advanced ways where they can really become diplomats or business people.

0:30:12.4 Norah Jones: That’s fantastic. Edgar, I’m going to ask you to now imagine, as I know you have been during our conversation, but even more pointedly now, I’d like you to think about who it is that’s listening to this podcast. And if you were to turn to them and invite them or exhort them or warn them, however you would like to use this time, but turning to the listener and saying, what would you… What do you want them to hear from you?

0:30:44.7 Edgar Serrano: I think, that we need to understand that we will have resistance sometimes from language learners, but we need to make sure that they understand… That we give them the tools to succeed. That we make a connection and we really make an emotional investment on them where they will be able to celebrate their progress and really connect with language. So I think we really need to know our strengths as educators or whatever you do and use it to enrich the lives of others. To make that connection to change that perception in the language into the students, to the people that we interact with, because we need to have more language learners. So know your strengths and use them to celebrate your students, to help them grow and to become more proficient in language learning.

0:31:46.3 Norah Jones: ‘To use one’s own strengths and to help others to not only learn but celebrate.’ Those are powerful words, Edgar.

0:31:54.8 Edgar Serrano: Thank you. Sometimes we forget how much we know.

0:32:00.4 Norah Jones: How much do we know? How much how much do we forget, Edgar? Just address that. Just a tiny bit more.

0:32:06.8 Edgar Serrano: Yeah. Sometimes, I think… I want to put it as my experience. This is my second career. Teaching. And many times again that mindset thinking, “Oh, well. I’m not really a teacher.” But you have so much experience many times that can help give a different perspective in somebody else’s life and make a connection. And with that, make an impact into our society to help it grow in a more positive way.

0:32:34.3 Norah Jones: Beautifully said. Thank you so much. Edgar, it’s always a great pleasure to talk with you. You’re a gentle, compassionate human. And it’s a great pleasure to not only have a chance to have a conversation with you, but to know the positive impact you’re bringing to so many young people’s lives and all the lives of old people, too [chuckle]

0:32:56.6 Edgar Serrano: Thank you, Nora.

0:32:57.8 Norah Jones: So, thank you for everything. And I hope that you will continue to take good care.

0:33:01.9 Edgar Serrano: It’s always a pleasure.

0:33:04.2 Norah Jones: Oh. It’s been fun. And again, take care and I look forward to our conversation again soon.

0:33:11.6 Edgar Serrano: Thank you. And thank you everybody who’s listening to this. And don’t forget, just keep pushing hard. 0:33:16.8 Norah Jones: Thank you so much for listening to this episode. If you enjoyed it, please share it with your friends, family and colleagues. Let’s continue the conversation. Be sure to check out my website, fluencyonline.com to learn more about our guests and to check out the resources and information they’ve shared with us there. I have other ideas, resources and opportunities there for you too. Again, thanks so much for listening. And until next time.

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3 thoughts on “Episode 16 Reframing Language Perceptions: A Conversation with Edgar Serrano

  1. Thank you for the opportunity to hear Edgar’s Podcast. He mentioned so many points that resonate with me, such as how the teacher helps students forge their paths, understanding how to be successful language learners and how to understand that language will be important for their careers. His analogy about going to the gym is great – often people know it’s important, but they don’t know what to do when they get there, so they need guidance. Absolutely, a teacher is a coach and a trainer, too!

    1. Thanks for listening, Parthena! One of your gifts as an educator is to understand and live the “coach” role, helping students learn how to do their “language exercises,” but refraining from doing them for the students! Thanks for spotting that in Edgar’s conversation.

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