One of the first things I thought after viewing my first-semester schedule was “Wow! I’m really going to learn another language! I’m finally going to REALLY speak Spanish”. I remembered how much fun it had been many, many years ago in high school. My friends and I had learned just enough to carry on elementary “Spanglish” conversations by injecting our snazzy, newly acquired vocabulary wherever we could. But this time around it would be different. This was the real deal. I not only wanted to do well, I wanted to be prolific.

Spanish 1 of course brought with it simple tenses, pronouns, and seemingly endless vocabulary – so far, so good. I had even found writing my first required essay exciting. There was the chance to strut my “new stuff” in a very safe, highly-tolerant setting. In a class of beginners, I was afforded the grace of being just that. I had just learned to understand the “paint”; my instructor wasn’t expecting a Mona Lisa yet. Then came Spanish 2 and 3 – quite a different story. I soon discovered that as my knowledge of this now not-so-foreign language increased, so did the instructor’s level of expectation. Now, it was not only about simply communicating; it was about communicating well. Trying to incorporate all the “irregulars” and dialect variations into the accepted cultural contexts proved extremely intimidating, especially for the final writing/presentational assignment for Spanish 3. Suddenly, this language was no longer just a language. It was “cultural” communication – and no matter how much I applied myself, I would always remain a “non-native”. Not only was I no closer to painting my Mona Lisa than I had been before, I was barely able to form a stick figure.

It was not until then, that I began to realize just what our non-native speaking students are up against. While it may be “easy” to attain a working knowledge of a second language, it’s quite another thing to apply that knowledge contextually. It must be layered slowly; one coat on top of the other, building slowly. Now, whenever I have the privilege to tutor such students, I am always mindful to meet them where they are – taking care not to “smear the paint” their English professors are so patiently teaching them to use.