Monday profile: College of Alameda’s Esther Guerrero
By Rin Kelly
Esther Guerrero began her teaching career at the prestigious University of California, Berkeley. But a summer experience teaching disadvantaged youth at Upward Bound convinced her that she was happiest working with students who had further to go. A professor in the Peralta system since 1984, Guerrero, a multilingual native of Mexico who immigrated to the United States with her family at age 2, returned this year to the College of Alameda, where she helms the Spanish department.
The inspirational teacher – who happens to be my inspirational teacher this semester – brings to the classroom a palpable passion for language, the expertise of two master’s degrees and decades of teaching, and a family history steeped in learning and cultural inquiry.
Can people learn Spanish at any age?
You learn languages differently after your teenage years – it has to do with the lateralization of the brain. Some say you can learn at any age, some say you can’t. I know what I’ve experienced. I’ve had students ages 13 to 80. I had a couple, they were in their early 80s when they were my students, and at the time they were my best students. They acquired better and faster than the 20-year-olds.
And their grandson is in your class this semester!
And their grandson is in my class!
You’ve said that your grandfather was one of the inspirations for your love of language. How many languages did he speak and how did he pick them up?
He was a teacher of languages: English, French, Hebrew. He spoke seven languages fluently and had an additional knowledge of four. He was born in Salonica but grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. In Istanbul, the men especially are exposed to many languages because Istanbul is a crossroads for trade. So many people, and especially the men, speak many languages. In addition, he was sent to France to study French. He received a scholarship and continued with his learning of languages. When he was 45 or so, he brought his family to Mexico – this was in the ’20s – to escape the war. I was lucky enough that he lived long enough for me to know him and hear his story.
What is the best way to learn a language?
I think the best way is to begin with formal study of a language, taking a class where you’re looking at verb tenses, learning vocabulary and grammar structure, and working really hard to memorize vocabulary and these grammar structures. And then applying that information. It can be applied, amazingly, here in the Bay Area, almost anywhere. There are so many opportunities to speak Spanish. Or go to a Spanish-speaking country. Many people talk about immersion as a way of learning. You can try that, but I think it’s best to first expose yourself with a class. I have a lot of students for whom I suggest that – people in medicine, people in nursing. I suggest they first study it and then apply it with their patients. They do it and it seems to work pretty well.
Is your class in any way a form of immersion, the way you begin class on the first day speaking Spanish to students?
Yes, it is, because I begin in the target language, so it becomes a situation where they have to sink or swim. Which is a way to acquire languages. And I think also because it’s possible that many language classes, be it Spanish or French or Italian, the classes are often about the language – the teachers will talk about the language, they’ll talk about verbs and such, but they won’t give you the opportunity to apply it. So if you speak only in Spanish in the very beginning you’re drawing on that comprehension skill that needs to be developed.
It’s interesting how a student in your classes can come in with no knowledge of the language but can still basically understand what you’re saying immediately.
Well I don’t want to give away too many of my secrets, but there is a technique to my madness. First of all, if you’re coming from English, there are a lot of cognates, words that are very similar in the two languages. In fact, I believe that something like 60 to 70 percent of vocabulary in English comes from Latin. So right there that’s a lot. When I begin my classes, I rely very heavily on cognates. Students aren’t aware of this, so they have the sense that they’re understanding new information. Unbeknownst to them I’m having them use their knowledge of these cognates to understand Spanish, to give them some confidence. That’s the goal: confidence that they can understand.
It definitely works.
Toward the end of the semester they’re speaking Spanish pretty well; this happens every semester and I just wait for it. I think that’s the moment of understanding what it really means to learn a language. Communicating with someone you might not otherwise be able to communicate with. For me the most important reason to study any language is that it opens up a new universe for you. The pleasure that comes from that expands the mind and expands the heart.
What have your students gone on to do with their Spanish after taking your classes?
Quite a bit. To this day I’ll get an e-mail 15 years later from someone who took a class from me, telling me that because of my classes they went on to travel. I’ve received postcards from Mexico, Cuba, Spain, Latin America, and with a semester or two of my classes they have been able to communicate. I’ve had students tell me that they’ve maintained the Spanish and now, having had children, they’ve taught it to their children. I have two students who wrote me recently who said that the rigor of my class encouraged them to go on and complete a BA each, plus a law degree for one and a master’s in psychology for another.