Hispanic Heritage Month: ETSU professor encourages broadening horizons through a second language

Hispanic Heritage Month

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Across the nation, the Spanish language is growing in popularity, so much so that by 2050, The US Census predicts one in three U.S. citizens will speak Spanish.

Local organizers are stepping up to help make sure everyone can understand one another, in more ways than one. Dr. Theresa McGarry has worked at East Tennessee State University as a linguist professor for more than 17 years.

“Most of the world speaks more than one language,” McGarry said. “Americans don’t realize this because most of us grow up speaking one.”

That’s part of the reason learning a second language is growing in popularity, one of the most popular being Spanish.

“If you’re going to learn a second one at all in this country, there are so many advantages to that being Spanish,” said Dr. McGarry.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking one language is easier to learn than another. Dr. McGarry adds that “Every language has things about it that are hard. There’s really no second language that’s easy to learn, people are always trying pretty hard.”

One of the great places to start the learning process is your public library. For local Tennesseans though, there’s another free option through the Tennessee Electronic Library. That’s where you can find a link to ‘Transparent Language Online,’ a space where you can learn any language, no matter what language you speak, for free. A username and password are the only required things you fill out, so users don’t even have to have an e-mail.

However, it’s not just new words that students have to comprehend. Dr. McGarry explains that, if she’s teaching a new student, she will have to teach her the culture.

“Think about the things she would like to do, not just the words that she’s going to know, but the things she would like to do with them,” Dr. McGarry said. “For example, if she wants to talk to her child’s teacher, then she’ll need to know words related to school performance, but she’ll also need to know the level of politeness that a parent typically uses with a teacher in this country, which is, of course, different from country to country.”

For many other people though, there are other reasons to learn another language. No matter the reason though, Dr. McGarry said the mental benefits are tremendous.

“All the research shows is that bilingualism makes you smarter,” she said. “There’s just many cognitive benefits that research has shown from knowing more than one language.” Part of that reason, being that learning a new language does more than expand your vocabulary, it grows your perspective.

“You can hardly learn Spanish without learning some culture,” said McGarry. “The first words you’re exposed to, like food words or clothing words, sombrero or tortilla, stuff like that. They immediately teach you something new, you learn a new food. You learn a new clothing style. Quinceañera, if you understand that world, you’ve learned a whole cultural practice that English speakers don’t have, as far as I know. So that, I think, would be one of the fun things about learning Spanish, is that even if you don’t learn grammar, you just learn words, you find yourself in new cultural concepts.”

So, if you’re curious, there are plenty of opportunities for you to learn. Just head over to your local library, or check out their website, to see all the options they have for you. Below are links to several public libraries throughout the region:

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