Impact Stories

  • Maria Nicolacakis

World Languages at Acalanes

The World Languages Department at Acalanes is committed to providing students a solid proficiency in another language, while helping them gain an appreciation of other cultures and immigrant experiences. With class offerings from beginning to AP levels in French, Mandarin, and Spanish, the World Language Dept. is an integral part of the curriculum at Acalanes.

We recently sat down with Acalanes Spanish teacher Elizabeth Gough (“Profe”) who gave us an overview of the World Language program at our local high school. Let’s hear what she had to say.

Thank you for speaking with us today! Tell us a little bit about yourself … your background, how did you come teach Spanish, and how long have you been here?

I grew up in Lafayette, went to Acalanes, was a coach at Springbrook Pool, and then lived outside the Bay Area for a decade while attending college in Massachusetts, studying abroad in Spain, teaching in Southern California, and working in Venezuela for several years. After my return to the area, I was working at a startup newspaper and teaching ESL when an Acalanes administrator who knew about my experiences recruited me to teach Spanish. My first year, it was so much fun to see many of my former “gutter guppies” in high school! I was motivated to encourage our community’s youth to do what I had done: learn another language and understand different cultures by spending time living, studying, working, and traveling abroad. This year is my 25th year of teaching at Acalanes, but the first time I stepped onto this campus was to swim in a city meet, well over 40 years ago. I have loved this place for a long time.

Give us an overview of the World Language Dept. at Acalanes today. How many languages are taught? What are the department’s goals?

We teach beginning to AP, levels 1-5, of French, Mandarin, and Spanish. Our goal is not only to get our students proficient in speaking, writing, and comprehending another language, but also to help them gain an appreciation of other cultures and immigrant experiences. We scaffold our instruction so that students progress from writing and speaking simple dialogues and reading and listening to short made-for-the-class announcements, at the lower levels, to writing analytical essays and creative pieces and understanding authentic recordings and texts, published by and for native speakers, at the highest level. Our hope and belief is that our language programs support many of the other disciplines. For example, that they bolster the language-building and critical-thinking-skills-building that occurs in English and social studies classes; reinforce the importance of topics addressed in science classes; give increased attention to issues of diversity and equity; exercise the brain in formula memorization and application activities similarly to the way math classes do; and add opportunities for artistic expression and appreciation – in music, dance, painting, etc. One of our goals is to encourage students to practice the target language as much as they can, more frequently than our block schedule allows, so that they can become highly conversant. We try to get them to see the importance of learning other languages for benefits such as social connections, job security, high salaries, and improved cognitive abilities, so that they will become self-motivated. Another goal is to get students to attend more cultural events in our community and meet people from the target cultures.

What shifts in World Language education, if any, have you seen in the years that you’ve been teaching at Acalanes?

Although our language courses are still very academic as they are designed for students’ eventual success at the AP level, I’d say that there has been a bit of a shift away from the linguistic rigor and a greater emphasis on cultural awareness. There are still plenty of evaluations that focus on grammatical and lexical precision, but we tend to balance those out a bit more with evaluations that have to do with cultural knowledge.

There are also many more second chances for credit recovery to help students improve their understanding and their grade, especially at the lower levels.

We emphasize conversation practice more than before and use technology much more to enhance what we teach. World language teachers constantly peruse websites, podcasts, and educator magazines, looking for new material and insights.

Also, recent race and equity trainings have made us, just like other teachers, realize that we have missed opportunities to talk about the contributions of certain minorities in the past and the discrimination that people in other cultures may have faced; I think we are all addressing this now much more than before, in our curriculum, classroom decorations, and special events. In the case of Spanish in particular, we’ve talked about the strides that we’ve made in cultural inclusion. We try now to include guest speakers and materials from the widest range possible of Spanish-speaking countries instead of over-relying on information about just Spain and Mexico.

From your perspective, why should students study another language?

This is the script that I made for the Spanish Open House video, but it’s worth repeating: World language study creates more positive attitudes and understanding towards people who are culturally different but it also enables people to gain a better understanding of their own culture in the process.

The U.S. is a multicultural country and knowledge of other languages helps us connect with fellow citizens and work with them in many areas of life. It also helps in overseas business and overseas ventures and adventures. World-language skills make an employee more valuable in the marketplace, in this country and abroad. Plus, in many fields, workers with world language skills receive higher salaries or bonus pay.

Higher-order thinking skills such as troubleshooting, making inferences, and dealing with abstract concepts are shown to increase when one studies a world language. English reading skills and SAT writing scores also get a boost when one is bilingual or multilingual.

Moreover, here in California, people can make more friends, communicate better with their neighbors, get help when needed, and enjoy more aspects of life (such as music) if they speak another language!

Please tell us what role LPIE plays in the World Language Dept.

Your importance cannot be overstated! We have a budget, thanks to you! Over the years, you have helped us take students on field trips to art museums, cultural centers, and dance shows in authentic restaurants. You have paid for guest speakers and instructors, who have taught students how to make sugar skulls, do Chinese brush painting, dance salsa, and more. You have sponsored Ballet Folklórico, Aztec drumming, and dragon dancing at the school. Members of LPIE who are native speakers have volunteered to tell stories about their countries and help us conduct special conversation days in our classrooms. Thanks to LPIE, we have been able to buy short story collections, magazine subscriptions, website subscriptions, videos, and audio equipment. We’ve also been able to decorate the hallways and create posters for special holidays and awareness campaigns. If I had to describe to someone what makes Acalanes a special place, LPIE would make my short list of reasons. Thank you.

What would you tell your high school aged self today?

I fear that some, if not all, of these eight things that I wish I could tell my teenage self are going to sound like clichés, but they didn’t feel so when they came to me as epiphanies during my life; so I offer them in that vein.

  1. It really is okay to etch a unique path for yourself – to go to a college where no one else you know went, or to pick a career or hobby that no one else you know chose.

  2. On a related note: find your passion, find your people, and find your place. Don’t stop searching and don’t settle until you find them.

  3. It is okay to fail, and sometimes it is best to walk away.

  4. Be courageous and flexible in the face of uncertainties, and stop trying to predict the outcomes.

  5. Be grateful for what you have.

  6. Don’t be too quick to judge other people.

  7. Truisms often contain wisdom with qualifications. For example, “What goes around comes around” needs qualification. Often bad acts seem to go unpunished; there are no just desserts. However, when people are kind to others, others are usually kind to them in return. That part of the platitude holds up, I think.

  8. Although we need to worry about conserving some things, others are in endless supply. We can and should dish out two things to others at all times: love and kindness.

Thanks for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

Photos from a recent Spanish field trip