Episode 70 – Language as a Lifeline

Episode 70 Language as a Lifeline
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 70 - Language as a Lifeline
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“As a species, we’re the only thing that exists in this world right now that can talk about things that aren’t just about our survival. We can talk about art. We can talk about literature. We can talk about things in the past and things in the future. Why would we have such a wonderful gift and not want to share it with every other person that lives in this country? Be able to share ideas, be able to share hypotheses, to make the world a better place, to share best practices, to share what works and what doesn’t work? I feel as a species, that is our responsibility.”

There’s a lot of encouragement here: real-life struggles and triumphs that demonstrate that the only real tool we have to express our identity, our experiences, and our hopes and contributions is through language.

In this conversation, Celia tells stories of shaming – and of claiming one’s personal value. She tells stores of pathways blocked – and of working through language to break those barriers down and erect instead sign posts to positive impact in the world. She shares story after story of the positive and powerful use of language to open doors for oneself and others, to bring hope where there are struggles, and connections where there was loneliness.

Language is not an “elective” in life: it is the central tool for human beings to experience their humanity.

Celia shares from her perspective as a multilingual person who experienced the truth of language identity as both a barrier to her opportunities and then a superhighway to them. You can hear Celia speak to these themes also as a panelist on podcast 62, Heritage Doorways. Check out Celia’s bio and resources to discover more on how her story can help you tell yours.

We all have stories of identity, inclusion, and exclusion based on language. Let’s tell them so we can help lift everyone. When we feel secure in our identity, fear dissipates, curiosity can flourish, and the joy and energy Celia demonstrates can flow out into the world, from all of us.

Language is where hope begins.

Enjoy the podcast.

Scroll down for full transcript.

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Yes, @NorahLulicJones definitely has the talent of "bringing out" the best in others or allowing them to showcase themselves in the best light! Thank you for directing the spotlight on others who have great stories and talents to share with others. 

Lisa Fore

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Your podcasts are exceptionally relevant and applicable, thought-provoking and insightful, easy-to-follow and enjoyable!  

Paul Sandrock
Senior Advisor for Language Learning Initiatives / ACTFL

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You have an immense talent to draw the best from your participants. 

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Norah knows how to LISTEN - she really "hears" the message - and the interview is richer because of it.  New questions come from the hearing. 

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Want to hear more? Access previous episodes, and get to know the wonderful people I talk with through the It’s About Language page, or by clicking on the Podcast tab above. You can also find this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Transcript

Norah Jones:

It’s a great pleasure to welcome my guest today, Celia Chomón Zamora. Hi, Celia.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Hi, Norah. Thank you so much for having me today.

Norah Jones:

It’s a great pleasure. Celia is director of the Professional Learning and Certification system at ACTFL, the American Council on the Teaching of Languages. Delighted to have you here. Celia, your personal history illustrates so much of why you are in the position you are in, professional, learning and certification for language people. Every word has something about your background. Tell our listeners about your background and how it got you where you are today, please.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Sure. So basically, the really long story short, my dad originated from different Spain and his family immigrated to Venezuela because of the whole Franco era. My mom is Cuban, and she immigrated from Cuba because of the Castro fiasco. So then they went to Venezuela, they met, they got married, they had my brother and myself. And then Venezuela started going downhill. So then we immigrated to Miami, Florida, when I was six years old. So the long, ongoing joke between my family is, so, are we good here? Can we stay in the United States, or do we have to go somewhere else?

Celia Chomón Zamora:

But yeah, I came to the United States when I was six and they put me in English, a second language class only for a few months because as kids, during that time, they’re sponges. So I was able to pick up English very quickly. And my parents were elated that I was learning English, and they wanted to make sure that they fostered that love of English while maintaining my Spanish at home. But they started seeing some interesting things that started happening when I was only speaking in English in school and literally everywhere outside, and I would only speak Spanish to them on occasion. So one time, for example, I remember I was, I think eight years old and we were celebrating Easter, and the word for basket in Spanish is cesta, but I didn’t know it.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So I asked my mom if I could have a basketa for Easter. So I just added that little vowel in there. And then I was in Girl Scouts, and I asked her if we could buy my tenta for Girl Scout camp. So my parents were not pleased that I was losing my Spanish, because to them in the early ’90s, losing my Spanish meant losing my culture, losing my identity, which is the only thing we really took with us from our immigration. They started implementing this whole Spanish-only in the household, regardless of what the subject was, Spanish only. And every time that I would make one of those little weird errors, obviously they’re not linguists, so what they would do is, they would have me get the dictionary and write out the actual word 100 times.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And we would have these table, dinner conversations called, the out of truth, in Spanish, where they would force me to talk about really hot topics in Spanish to continue my Spanish. So I always tell my parents that they were the original advocates for me. And they’re the ones that really instilled that importance of language. Regardless though, I went to high school, and in ninth grade I was given the choice between French and Spanish. And as any ninth grader in Miami, Florida will tell you, I wanted the easy class, so I took Spanish. But back then, because I had absolutely zero formal training in Spanish, they put me in Spanish 1.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So imagine, Norah, I was learning the alphabet, I was learning how to say good morning and good afternoon, despite the fact that I had spoken Spanish every single day of my life up to that point. So, of course that class was excruciatingly boring and I hated every minute of it. The year after that, I got put into AP Spanish. So imagine going from Spanish 1 to AP Spanish in one year, every teacher’s dream. I didn’t know how to write Spanish because, even though we definitely spoke Spanish at home and we had a very strict Spanish-only at home, there weren’t really many opportunities for me to write in Spanish. So I was going from only talking to having to write essays, and I didn’t know where those accent marks went.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So I just started randomly placing them wherever I could. And I thought, call it a day. Lucky for me though, that the AP Spanish test in the early 2000s, in order for me to get a five, all you had to do was really tell Maria how to get to the library, and you’re set. So I got a five in AP Spanish by writing my name and telling Maria how to get to the library. So I went to college with my Spanish college credit. I was an English major. Because I loved languages, I just didn’t know what to do with it. I majored in English literature. I took Italian classes. I ended up getting certified in Japanese, including Japanese tea ceremony. I loved everything Japanese. And I graduated not knowing what to do with my life.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So someone said, why don’t you teach until you figure it out? I said, sure. So I went to a Title I school in Miami, Florida. And I taught English there the first year to a bunch of seniors who… Well, 18-year old 10th graders because they hadn’t passed their state assessments, and they were basically just waiting it out until they either could finally pass a test and graduate, or they would just drop out. That year, I was able to get a lot of them to pass the test. So that showed me that maybe these students needed somebody that cared, and that met them at their level. But of course, being a 22-year old, teaching 18 year olds, I had to lie a lot about my age, and tell them that I was a lot older than I was.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

But the next year after that, they asked me, Hey, we need a Spanish teacher. You speak Spanish, right? Can you teach Spanish? And I said, absolutely, I can. Sure. And I ended up loving it. I ended up loving teaching languages. But again, I saw a lot of myself in my students, that they were either bored to tears, or they just weren’t being met where they were. They had needs that those textbooks in the early 2000s just were not… They weren’t being met where they were. They needed a lot more than what was being provided or we were being taught to teach them. So without any background, without any methodology about language teaching, I invented what I thought was my first heritage language course, which ended up being really intuitive for me, how to teach them what they don’t know and what they need to be successful in Spanish.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

That eventually led me to start doing my own research. And I found a master’s in linguistics program at Florida International University in Miami, where I started learning a lot about theoretical linguistics and what linguistics were. And then I met Dr. Melissa Baralt who had graduated from Georgetown and was now teaching at Florida International University. And she taught me what I was, what my husband was, where all of us were, heritage speakers. She taught me this term, and it was literally poof, my eyes were opened. I’m like, oh my gosh, this all makes so much sense. So that just led me to say, I want to do my doctorate in linguistics, and do something with heritage speakers, because I feel that my community in Miami, Florida, we’re 90% of us, are heritage speakers, we are still not being met where we are.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

I’m failing my students, we’re failing each other. We’re failing, my friends and my family members and my husband. So I said, I want to be the expert on heritage language learners. So I applied to grad school the year afterwards, while teaching. So I did my master’s while I was teaching, and I applied to grad school while I was teaching. And I got into Georgetown, which was a dream come true because, I’m the first person in my family that got a bachelor’s and a master’s, and now a doctorate. So I went to Georgetown and I got into the Spanish of High Linguistics program. I had to really teach myself a lot of the grammar.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

One of my favorite stories that I tell people when talk about heritage language speakers, is that I was in a class and I had just used the pluperfect subjunctive in a sentence. And then afterwards, my professor asked me about the pluperfect subjunctive. And I asked him, what’s that? And because I had never really thought that far out in Spanish, and I had to really go back and do a lot of reading, even though when I was teaching Spanish to my high school students, I had to definitely read up a lot on the explicit grammar, but I felt I had to do even more reading when I was in my doctoral program. And I really taught myself more Spanish than I ever was. And I definitely feel I’m a balanced bilingual now.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And I ended up doing my entire dissertation on heritage speakers because my dream was really to publish a book on it, or just do as much as possible to help out the teachers, and the students, and the parents, and the children to really embrace their identity and their language. So I graduated from my doctorate. I didn’t really want to go the academia route. So I started looking around. I became a department chair for a private school, and I found ACTFL. I applied to be a senior manager of quality assurance, and I was one of the top two finalists. And I did not get it because the other person had more assessment experience than I did. But I asked the person, I’m like, look, I really believe in what ACTFL stands for. I love ACTFL. Do you have anything I could do, even consulting work? And she said, yeah, absolutely. We can have you be a consultant.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So I was a consultant for two years, Norah.

Norah Jones:

Wow.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

One, I was on department chair. And then after the second year, the person that hired me as a consultant said, Hey, by the way, that original quality assurance position opened up again, are you interested? And I said, absolutely, I am. So I applied. And after two years, I finally got to act as senior manager of quality assurance and certifications. I took a lot of what I learned as a teacher, and as a student, and as a researcher and put it into quality assurance and certification. So a lot of guided instruction, think aloud, talking about heritage speakers, talking about what that means in testing. And then there was some massive restructuring and this position opened up of Director of Professional Learning and Certification.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And I said, well, look, I’m a researcher. I’m a former teacher. I have quality assurance. I have all of these. I feel the job was made for me. And, yeah. And I applied for it and I got it. And I wake up every morning just loving my job, and loving what I do, and loving that I can really advocate for all of those teachers and those students out there that are questioning their identity, or their language, or their proficiency.

Norah Jones:

Powerful story. Advocate for those out there that are questioning their identity. I’m going to jump on that because of the whole nature of the interconnection of language and identity. So, dive down a little deeper into that. How do you advocate for those who are struggling with, or feel a bit assaulted by, if I can put it that way, the connection between their language background or their languages that they’re taking and their identity?

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Sure. And I feel that’s so important because a lot of people attribute your proficiency level to your cultural affiliation or vice versa. So, I have had so many of my friends and colleagues and acquaintances who have a very Hispanic sounding name because they’re from Hispanic descent. And in Miami, especially, they’ll say… Even you, Norah, because Norah is a pretty Hispanic-sounding name. They’ll say, Norah, do you speak Spanish? No, I don’t. Oh, whoa, why not? How embarrassing. And even myself, I have been called by my family in France, Venezolana arrepentida, which means… It’s a weird translation, but it essentially is saying disgraceful, or fallen from grace, or embarrassing Venezuelan, because I don’t even speak the proper Venezuelan anymore because my Spanish is more of a United States Spanish, a Miami Spanish.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So a lot of people feel that, because they cannot express themselves as well in their heritage language as they could in the language of the country in which they currently live, that they are no longer that culture. But then for example, I always use the example of my husband, my husband was born in United States, but he is from Nicaragua descent. And his family was just really adamant about him learning English and his siblings. So they didn’t really pursue that whole Spanish-only in the household. And they didn’t really care as much whether he took Spanish in high school or college. So a lot of his Spanish is a typical heritage Spanish, which is, the proficiency is not as high as a monolingual Spanish speaker.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Instead of embracing it and saying, Hey, you made a little error here, let’s give you some feedback, or this is how you would say it, instead they would embarrass him or they would put him down. And so then he, himself didn’t want to speak Spanish. He was embarrassed of his Spanish, and because he was embarrassed of his Spanish, he was embarrassed of his identity. But then what ended up happening is that, he wasn’t American enough to be considered American, because what he would say he was American, well, where are you really from though? Are you really American? Where are you really from? But then, if he said he was from Nicaragua, he wasn’t Nicaragua enough either. So where does that leave him?

Norah Jones:

Hmm. Rough space.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Yeah. And so, that’s a really big problem with heritage speakers, is like, where do you fit in? Even this whole conversation of native speakers, Norah. I was applying for this job to teach in Japan, to teach English, and they wanted native speakers of English. So, of course, I’ve been speaking English since I was six. My entire education was in English. My bachelor’s, my master’s, everything. And so then when I got to the very end, they asked for a picture, and when they saw my picture, they said, oh, we asked for native speakers of English. I’m like, yeah, I’m a native speaker of English. Where were you born? Well, I was born in Venezuela, but I was raised in the United States. So, your first language is Spanish? Well, yeah, but I’m essentially a native speaker of English. No.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So I am not considered a native speaker of English, but because I also did not receive all of my education in Spanish, sometimes I’m not considered a native speaker Spanish either. So, apparently I don’t have a native language, which is why I think the term native speaker is so problematic. But yeah, identity and language really go hand in hand. The best way to really insult someone’s identity, is to insult their language, especially their first language.

Norah Jones:

That is a powerful statement right there, and the concept of shaming. One of the items that I have in an introduction that I usually use to this podcast talks about both the opening of doors, but the creation of boundaries. And that is a strong, highly personalized boundary that you’ve just described there. For a moment, talk about that concept of native language in what you do in the advocacy that you’re engaged in. Is there any role in helping people to, say, learn new vocabulary about how we talk about language, so that identity-shaming doesn’t turn out to happen over and over again?

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Yeah, that’s such a great point, Norah. And I feel we’re in such a great time where right now we’re really starting to see, or how our language affects our identities, our policies, politics, everything. So it’s really a great time because, I think that if I would’ve brought this up… And mind you, this has been brought up before, especially in the English and the second language community, it has been brought up for a long time. And now I think it’s starting to make way into the world language community. So this is not something new per se, but I feel a long time ago, this probably would’ve just been shrugged off or ignored. But I feel now, because people are finally starting to pay attention into, like how you said, how words matter, it’s finally being paid attention to.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So, some of the things that we’re working on at ACTFL is, we’re really trying to move away from the term native speaker, and instead, maybe say, their first language, or the first language acquired, or the first language they speak, or even just maybe talking about just multilingualism. Even the term, when we talk about native speakers, a lot of our things are always attributed to, oh, you need to be like a native speaker. But I’m sure all of us, including your audience, know monolinguals who are not superior speakers of their only language. So sometimes we may need to just move away from that thought that the “native speaker” is the gold standard, and just talk instead about proficiency, and what we can do with the language, regardless of whether it’s your first, second, 10th language. And just really talk about that, and then talk about identity in other ways.

Norah Jones:

It’s interesting when you mention that, that proficiency as the criterion. I’m thinking too, of the multiple cultures that everyone is in, the language that one uses with one’s family. Monolingual, let’s take a moment, monolingual person, the way that they enter the different cultures through the vocabulary that they choose, the syntax that they apply. The very nature of even the metalinguistic behaviors that they exhibit. Everyone is multilingual in that way because of the cultures they inhabit of their friends, families, formal situations, professions. So, that would be very helpful to be able to change minds in that way, or move people along that continuum of understanding first language, multiple languages, as well as celebrating the multilingualism within even folks that know one language, as my students certainly responded to when I would tell them they were already multilingual before they even entered my Spanish or French class, for example.

Norah Jones:

Where do you think the greatest possibilities for advocacy are? You joined us as part of the panel on advocacy that’s been very well received, the podcast number 62. And what are some of the directions of advocacy that you see, especially effective here, not only for the language, but also this effective aspect of identity, as far as those are concerned?

Celia Chomón Zamora:

I think the most important advocacy that sometimes we overlook because we’re so busy advocating at the global level and at the national level that sometimes we forget that the original advocacy starts from home. And I’ll give you a perfect example of that. When I was teaching middle school, I started my own Japanese program because a lot of my middle schoolers were really into anime and they were really into all of those things. And what better way to engage them into the language than by engaging them in what they like and meeting them there and say, Hey, by the way, you like anime, we’ll learn Japanese. So I started my Japanese program, and we got through two years of Japanese before, of course, budget cuts started coming in.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And in Florida especially, they had back then what was called the FCAT, which was the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or something like that. It was essentially the standard state test. So they wanted to replace my Japanese class with more intensive reading and intensive math in order for them to be able to pass the assessments. And I kept advocating why these Japanese classes were so important, and how language really helped the brain and so forth. But my principal didn’t really want to listen to me. So I told my students, Hey, it looks like they’re going to cancel our Japanese class this next year. So you’re not.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

All of them went home. All of them told their parents, and all of their parents called, emailed, attended school board meetings, met with the principal, assistant principal, district and so forth. Guess who had a third year of Japanese?

Norah Jones:

Yeah, I can predict to be you. Right?

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Mm-hmm. So, I feel like we sometimes don’t engage the parents as much as we need to, to talk to them, have them understand the importance of not just learning a language, but the importance of continual a language, the importance of revitalizing their heritage language, the importance of them continuing to push their kids to embrace their language and their identity, because that’s going to be so helpful for them in the future, especially when they’re applying for jobs or applying for internships or so forth. We don’t even have to talk about Latin America because, the example I always use is, not if you want to conduct business in Latin America, but even conduct business in the United States. Right now we’re a very multilingual community. So even being able to work in hospitality, or work in business, or banking, you’re going to use language. You’re always going to see that.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So, really starting to advocate to parents from the beginning about how language is so important, I think is the way that at least we at ACTFL are starting to shift and go in there. Yeah. And one of the stories that I told in your other podcast, was about that when my son was two, he had a delay in speaking. I went to the pediatrician. The pediatrician asked me if I was speaking to him in more than one language, and I said, yes. And she said, well, that’s probably your issue, that you’re speaking to him in more than one language. And I said, cool. And then the next day we changed pediatricians. But how many parents don’t know that? How many parents don’t know?

Celia Chomón Zamora:

I would never hurt my child intentionally. So, if I really thought that me speaking in more than one language was hurting my child and giving him a speech impediment, why wouldn’t I stop talking to him in more than one language? So, we need to try to advocate to the parents and teaching them and giving them the tools that they need to be able to continue with their language, and making language acquisition and language learning tangible for them, is really important too.

Norah Jones:

The grass roots, getting folks to understand at the level of the student and their parents, guardians and within the community, very powerful, Celia, very powerful. When you were getting your PhD, when you talked about going after that PhD, there was such excitement in your voice, such a clear sense of doing something extremely important and fulfilling an interest, and also a call. What would you say were the top one or two things about what you learned in your PhD, or master’s PhD experience, that you’re like, and that absolutely is part of who I am now, what I want people to know, as I continue my work. What did those studies do for you, that you said, that’s amazing, and I’m going to work with that.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Wow. That’s a really good question. My goodness. Let’s see. I’m going to say that the first one is something that my mentor taught me about processing language. So language, there are different types of ways that you internalize the input that comes into language, and you can notice it, you can pay attention to it, and then you can become aware of it. And then there’s different levels of processing. So, a lot of studies and a lot of research has shown that the deeper that you process something, and the more awareness you have of the grammatical structure, or the vocabulary, the more work and effort that you put into understanding it and producing it, that is going to give you long term success in maintaining that language.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And I think that goes for anything really. So even when I was learning math, I could easily listen to the explanation for the math problem, and I could do the math problem. But the minute that I had to explain it, let’s just say to my partner, I had to really internalize and process the entire procedure in order to be able to explain it to somebody else. That’s what made that stick to me. So really processing language, it’s not just a matter of listening language or being exposed to language. You really have to process, it and you have to really become aware of it and make that effort. There have been so many people that I’ve met on the JET program when they go to Japan and they’re in a year in Japan, and they come back not knowing any Japanese. So just being in the country, and just being exposed to it 24 hours a day, isn’t enough.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So, that’s one major thing that I learned. And I take that to heart when I create resources for our teachers, and I create resources to present to other stakeholders in language learning, and even for my own son who I’m teaching now Japanese, apart from Spanish, that I make him process it. I make him do these little games, guided instruction games, make sure that he’s really internalizing that language. And the other thing that I think I really appreciated that I got from my doctorate came from my dissertation when I was doing depth processing with heritage language speakers. I was teaching heritage language speakers, a very, very weird, not weird, but a form that’s not really used anymore. And in my research, I found that, that form, which was the pluperfect subjective in contrary to fact, conditional sentences, my goodness… Essentially it’s a way to talk about something hypothetical in the past that may or may not have happened.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

How often do you talk about that in everyday language? When I was doing my research, I found that, that same structure now exists in various forms, depending on which Hispanic country. So in Caribbean Spanish they produce it this way, in Venezuelan Spanish they produce it this way, in the United States they produce it this way, and it all really comes down to the same meaning, but it’s just now produced in different ways. And I said, huh, that’s really interesting because then when you go and try to teach that to a student, and the student just has absolutely no idea what you’re talking about, but they can express that in a different way, who are we to say, no, this is the way you have to learn it.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And even just Spanish period, standard Spanish, sure, it exists, but there’re words for the same thing. For popcorn, there are 10 different ways of saying popcorn depending where you go, or straw. So, language, regardless of how a lot of us feel about language and standardization of language, language is living, language grows, language changes, and we just have to push for communication and the point of language, which is to connect and to communicate versus to just be really prescriptive about it. So, that’s probably one of the other main things that I got from my doctorate.

Norah Jones:

Phenomenal. I love that so much. Would that I had had this experience at the time-

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Yeah, exactly.

Norah Jones:

… using pluperfect subjunctive. The question that I have for you then, my friend, is, when you take a look at professional learning, you’ve spoken about such an important key, just touches my heart. Language is alive. You have also used the phrase already, several times actually, meeting students where they are. How do you apply that freedom in working with professionals who not only are charged with helping those under their care to learn languages, but also to grade that experience, to provide grading to administrators, to society as a whole, to rate how this language is being acquired? How do you combine those two? But I see maybe tensions.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So one of the things that we constantly tell instructors is that we’re empowering teachers to empower their students. And evaluation in the classroom can come in many forms. So it can come of course, as a test, or it can come in a form of a project, or just being able to communicate with each other, with the teacher, with the outside world. So we need to really look at what assessment means and what evaluation means. So for example, giving an evaluation that is more about proficiency based, they’re not necessarily going to mark you down because you use one article incorrect, or because you mispronounced a word, because life isn’t like that. In life, if I say, Norah, I talked to you last week, you’re not going to tell me, whoa, I have absolutely no idea what you just said.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

No, you can grasp from the context. And then maybe that was just a one-time mistake, or it wasn’t a mistake that necessarily impeded comprehension. So I think, first of all, looking at what our evaluations really are evaluating. So if we are a communication-based classroom, and we’re talking about really putting the emphasis on being able to use that language in the real world authentically, and communicate with others, then our evaluations need to reflect that. And I think what administrators and other stakeholders really want to see is growth in that ability.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

I don’t think a lot of people care that you can conjugate this one verb in under one minute, in 20 different forms. They care that you can ask somebody how to get from to A to B, or that you can have a conversation with somebody and involve the cultural aspect of the language as well, and involve pragmatics, and involve all of those, becoming a global citizen. So I think it really is a matter of being able to show students and show administrators and others, what the student can do with the language and how, what they can do with the language, continues to grow after every semester or every year.

Norah Jones:

Thanks.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Hope that answered your question.

Norah Jones:

Absolutely, it did. Now, one of the things that you worked that magic with your Japanese students, going to the concept of an extended sequence of study, where do you, in the work that you’re doing and the experiences that you have in your professional role in your life, see what progress of people understanding the importance of staying with learning and paying attention, as you talked about earlier, paying attention to the language for an extended period of time? Are we getting there in this country so that students have enough time to learn the language properly?

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Oh, I’d like to say that we’re getting there, but I don’t think so. I think that right now, even language learning is so politicized and we’re constantly seeing teachers telling us that their programs are being cut, or that their classes are being cut, or they’re just getting rid of the language programs. The earlier that the language starts, the better it is. So we’re really trying to collaborate with early language initiatives, and really trying to get students and programs hooked from a very early age. And I think that’s one of the things that emerging programs are doing so well and really seeing, like you said, the sequencing. But no, I don’t think we’re there yet.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And I think that, that’s something that we’re really striving to, especially with our initiative, such as lead with languages, that we have such wonderful people going out there and really spreading the word as to why these language programs are important, so that parents again, can push for their school districts to get these programs and to not just be a two-year thing in high school. No, take it for four years in high school, take it for the three years in middle school. I think one of the issues is that language is seen as an elective. Language is not an elective. Language is a tool with which we can express literature and math and science and history. So if anything, it should be a tool that we use to be able to take everything that we know and extrapolate it to somewhere else.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

My mom made a comment in Spanish once and I heard a colleague say it in English, and I just laughed because it’s so true. My mom always thinks that the reason I loved languages so much is because I wanted to be able to quadruple the people I was able to speak to, so that nobody ever got tired of me talking. But that’s exactly what it is. So, I think that if we, as a country, can stop looking at language as an elective, or as a thing that we can just push aside, and give it the importance it deserves, then yes, we will get to the point that everyone is learning language as they should for a continuous amount of time. And I give the example for myself. I took Italian for two years in college and then I went and I taught English in Italy for two summers in a row. And then that’s it. I haven’t really had a chance or an opportunity to communicate in Italian.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So a couple of years ago I was taking an Uber and I always talk to Uber drivers. I’m sure that’s no surprise to anybody that I talk to everybody that I meet. So I was talking to the Uber driver and I asked him what his first language was, because I could tell that English wasn’t his first language. And he said, Italian. And I said, oh my gosh. And so I started speaking to him in Italian, and he was so nice and he told me, ma’am I have to stop you right there. I don’t think you’re speaking Italian. I think you’re speaking what sounds Portuguese with a Italian accent and a lot of hand movement. And I was so embarrassed, but it just made me so sad because, my gosh, I’m a linguist and I didn’t even keep up with my Italian.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

But that just goes to show that if you don’t continue it, you’re going to lose it. You are. And I would tell my students that, I would tell grad students that, don’t stop with your language because if you do then it’s… It’s still dormant in there. I’m sure I go and live in Italy for two years, it’ll all come back, and that’s what I constantly tell my husband as a professional development, that we should go live in Italy for a couple of years. But, yeah. So I think as a country we’re not there yet. And I hope that, with our advocacy work and with all of the pushing that we’re doing, that hopefully we can get there.

Norah Jones:

We certainly hope so. I am though, for just a moment, going to take you on just a tiny journey. Imagine for just a moment that you have a person who seriously is looking at you with this sincere, as I say, question and, why do you say languages are important? I don’t understand why languages should be important. Speak to that foundational attitude.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Well, we, as a species, we’re the only thing that exists in this world right now that can talk about things that aren’t just about our survival. We can talk about art. We can talk about literature. We can talk about things in the past and things in the future. Why would we have such a wonderful gift and not want to share it with every other person that lives in this country? Be able to share ideas, be able to share hypotheses, to make the world a better place, to share best practices, to share what works and what doesn’t work? And not just in education, but as a mother, as a father, as a human being, why wouldn’t we want to extend that connection with other people?

Celia Chomón Zamora:

I feel as a species, that is our responsibility, to be able to take this knowledge that we have as individuals and all of our life experiences, and be able to share them with the world so that others can learn from our mistakes and can celebrate our successes and push us up when we’re feeling down. The more people that we connect with, the more that we, as a society, grow and can understand each other. And I feel a lot of the polarization that’s been going on in the world has been because we don’t take time to communicate and to listen and understand each other. And I feel language learning forces you as a person to stop and listen, because sometimes we’re so quick to talk and not listen.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And this takes me back to when I was learning Japanese in the very, very beginning of my Japanese classes. In Spanish, and I think in English, and a lot of languages, you start the intonation early on in the sentence when there’s about to be a question. But my Japanese teacher was trying to teach us that in Japanese, the questions didn’t really come until the end. So there are times that I would just stone off when people were talking to me unless I heard a question, and then I’m like, oh, I have to pay attention because the question’s coming. But my Japanese teacher purposefully did not do that, and purposefully kept all of the, what are those called, clues that a question was coming up to the very end, and she would constantly catch me not paying attention because the question would come at the end. And she kept saying, you need to listen.

Norah Jones:

Wow.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And I did. And I learned how to be a good and active listener because of language learning. And I learned to look at, and to really pay attention to language clues, the ones that are audible and the ones that aren’t. In Italy, when I used to speak actual Italian, I would go to a cafe every morning and I would order a coffee. And I would say, please, may I have a coffee? Thank you so much, have a great day, things that I do in Spanish and in English. And the bartender finally tells me one day, you know how I know that you are not from here and that you’re not a speaker of Italian? And I’m like, how? Because you’re too nice when you’re ordering coffee. Just order the coffee, and that’s it. I’m Like, huh. Okay.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And so I started going in there and I started just saying, espresso, and then I would get my espresso. And lo and behold, a couple of weeks later I was being asked what part of Italy I was from. So those audible and inaudible cues, but you have to pay attention, and you have to listen and you really have to understand. And I think that’s something that language learning forces you to do.

Norah Jones:

Forces you to pay attention to the other person with great attentiveness and with patience. How would you do now, formally, in your position… What are some of the key aspects of what you’ve talked about today, that you make sure are part of what Celia Zamora gives to professional learning because of your history, that probably nobody else does?

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Well, I would to say that the push now, especially at ACTFL in my department is, giving a platform to those voices that have not been represented for so long. And that goes for heritage language learners, less commonly taught languages and even indigenous language groups. We’re really taking a stand on empowering our teachers to empower their students, taking on a bigger role in identity, and creating a safe space for students to be who they are and to make mistakes, to not necessarily judge the language that’s coming out, but instead be accepting and giving it in a different spin. So, Hey, you say that at home and that’s great. But let me show you a different way of how to say this. Let’s code switch to a different standard so that in case you do need to talk to a different stakeholder, this is how you would say it, but your way is okay.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Looking at the student and teachers holistically. So we’re starting to do a lot of things with trauma informed teaching, because sometimes your student not understanding the language or not, not comprehending the instruction, has nothing to do with you. It has to do with a lot of things that are going on at home. We’re still in a pandemic. People have lost homes, lives, jobs, family member, a lot of things. So, looking at how we can support our students and our teachers in different ways that goes above and beyond language education, creating safe spaces for students to be able to embrace their identity. Yeah. Just different things that we haven’t looked at before. And going back to the beginning and just talking about what really is proficiency, understanding what proficiency is, understanding how language is acquired and language is taught and language is learned, and the best practices for that.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And also our teacher of the year said this year, also looking at our worst practices. So, I feel sometimes we talk about all the things that we do right. But I feel there’s so much that you learn from what went wrong, that it would be really good for us to share that. And I feel I learned that being a mother, because everyone always told me all of these wonderful things that come with motherhood, but nobody talks about the not so great part. So when my friends started telling me that they were pregnant, I would tell them all the dirty stuff, too. All the negative things that came with it that they can say, Hey, me too. It’s okay.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

You’re not on your own. You’re not in this island. We’re a community. It takes a village, and it takes a village to learn a language too, and to be there for our students. So I feel all of those things, really looking at teachers and students holistically, is really important. And one of the things that we’re doing now, Norah, too, is with this differentiated instruction, I feel a lot of times we use differentiated instruction for our students, but not for our teachers.

Norah Jones:

Wow.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

So I feel professional development needs to meet teachers where they are too.

Norah Jones:

Where the teacher, where the educator is, and that sense of demonstrating vulnerability. If we really mean that students can make mistakes, it’s time then to be able to talk about the worst practices, because we can all think of them and what we learned from them. That’s brilliant. Thank you.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Yeah.

Norah Jones:

That was an extraordinarily important list for real life, encouragement of language, healthy growth of language, and especially for the support of the individuals that are speaking, educators and students. Thank you for that. Now, Celia, we’ve reached where I’m going to ask you one last question as we draw to a close today. What is it that you do not want this podcast today to end, without you making sure that people have heard either again, or for the first time, however you would to interpret that?

Celia Chomón Zamora:

I would probably say three things. Number one, we need to really cheer each other on, everyone on, when learning and speaking another language. Even the person on the street that sometimes may have an accent… Everyone has an accent, right, but the perceived accent, that just means that they are multilingual. And that’s great. So, to really, instead of focusing on what they can’t do, focus on what they can do with their language, with any language. Number two, that we’re all in this together, and all of us need to be advocates for language learning and language teaching, and not just in our classrooms, not just in our districts, but just with everyone around us. We just need to go out there and just spread the word of how much we love languages and how languages are important and what languages mean to us and why everyone needs to learn a language.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

And number three, I would say that ACTFL is here for everyone. ACTFL is here for our language teachers and our language learners, and we’re at a weird crossroads right now with the teaching profession, with the critical teacher shortages. We’re here to support our teachers. We’re here to empower our teachers. So please, if there’s anything that you see on our website, ACTFL, if you see that there’s anything that is missing that you wish, why, I really wish ACTFL would do X, Y, Z, email me, email me, and I will have a zoom call with you, and I will talk to you. And you can ask a lot of people because random people will email me, and I will schedule zoom call and talk to them and ask them where they are and what they need from us. And we will do our best to meet you where you are and to help you because, if it weren’t for teachers, where would any of us be? So we’re really here to support you.

Norah Jones:

Thank you for those three important points. And I will definitely reiterate to the listeners that going to actfl.org is how to go about getting a lot of wonderful resources and connecting up with Celia Zamora. Go to my website, fluency.consulting, and you can connect up with this podcast, certainly with the resources and the biography that are on my website, so that you can see what Celia is up to and connect up with her resources. So thank you for that. We will definitely then help people to understand where they can go to talk with you. And that’s such a generous and typically Celia-esq experience. So, thank you.

Norah Jones:

Celia, thank you so much for your passionate and articulate expressions today of the importance of language and of what you, what ACTFL, and what so many are doing to make sure that languages are not an option, but part of the human miracle indeed. Thank you for everything.

Celia Chomón Zamora:

Thank you for having me, Norah. I really enjoyed being here and talking about language.

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