Madonna Spanish students build skills, improve communication

November 05, 2015

LIVONIA, Mich. – Earning a Spanish major, minor or teaching certificate is more than memorizing vocabulary and conjugating verbs. At Madonna University, Spanish language students immerse themselves in both culture and language while completing a real-world research project.

As part of the Oral and Written Composition class, students reviewed literature, developed research questions, wrote interview protocol, and even applied for Human Subject Research Committee approval before collecting the data, analyzing it and writing the report for the Cultural Narratives of Latinos in the US: Community-based Research Project.

Holly Tockstein had majored in Hispanic Studies and Communications at another institution, but chose Madonna to pursue a teaching certificate with a Spanish endorsement. Her topic, learning English to “survive” in the dominant culture.

“I am passionate about being open to and learning from other cultures, and when I sensed that some of my students were closed to learning about this beautiful language and culture, I wanted to focus my research on the discrimination that some Latinos face for no good reason,” she said.

As part of her research, Tockstein interviewed a husband and wife who had emigrated from Peru. She found they had separated socially and psychologically from the dominant culture, making it more difficult to learn English and assimilate into society. In their case, they had been on the receiving end of a “negative, unwelcoming experience.”

“I felt terrible because I think their experience can be seen as a reflection of what many immigrants feel as newcomers to our country,” she said, and she suggested classes or groups to help immigrants learn the language and assimilate into the culture.

“I hope that I am more open and welcoming to those who don’t speak the dominant language fluently,” she said. “Through teaching, I also hope that I can influence young minds to share similar opinions.”

Kelly Charniga added a Spanish minor to her biology/pre-med major after traveling to Puerto Rico and finding it difficult to communicate with the people there. She plans to attend graduate school and eventually to use her Spanish education in her desired field of epidemiology.

While brainstorming ideas for her research project, she learned that a friend’s grandmother, who speaks only Spanish, had recently had surgery and been offered an interpreter by the hospital. This not only fit in with her field of study but gave her a research topic: language barriers in the healthcare system. She was aware of the consequences faced by people receiving medical treatment in their non-native language – for example, misdiagnosis.

After analyzing the data, Charniga believes part of the problem is a lack of Hispanic doctors in the U.S. Her research revealed that while 16 percent of the total population is Hispanic, only four percent of doctors are. “… to educate more Hispanic doctors, this country would need to adopt education reforms and lower the cost of medical school,” she said. “Medical schools also need to emphasize multiculturalism and multilingualism in their curriculum.”

As an intern at the Mexican Consulate in Detroit, Charniga helped compile a directory, in Spanish, of health services for the state of Michigan and northern Ohio. It included clinics and hospitals that offer low-cost, free, and/or bilingual services. The internship raised her proficiency in reading, writing and speaking Spanish. “My final paper was nearly 20 pages long, and I cited 12 journal articles, many of which were in Spanish,” she said.

Katherine Luber also found the class and project, while intimidating, a great way to improve her Spanish language skills. “During my course of study, this is one of the best preparations, for actually using Spanish outside the classroom,” she said.

Luber’s interest in pursuing a Spanish major, was sparked by a pen pal friendship that began in her high school Spanish class. (She also majored in communication studies.) “That relationship influenced me to continue learning the language in the hopes of being able to communicate with a broader swath of society,” she said.

The topic of her research project was discrimination against Latinos in the U.S. educational system. She chose it because of the “othering” language she’d heard in casual settings, and because of the standardized testing bias that puts non-middle class Americans at a disadvantage.

Her research confirmed what she suspected: many Latinos report feeling discriminated against within the U.S. educational system. She also found that multiculturalism helps students feel valued in the classroom, regardless of background.

“Even encouraging students to share their cultural backgrounds is helpful,” she said. “When we nurture a perspective in our classrooms that affirms, celebrates and honors each student’s cultural background and linguistic heritage, we have so much to gain. It enrich the lives of students feeling left out, and creates a more tolerant and understanding environment for everyone.”

As the Hispanic population grows, Charniga encourages diversity be honored more. “We need to start thinking about them as a growing and influential group.”

The students presented their findings at the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters conference, and received the Emergent Scholar grant for their research.