Perhaps by an act of fate itself, I was offered a spot on a breakout trip to Belize, where I was a volunteer tutor at a government school in a small rural town where poverty prevailed and literacy was uncommon.
It was the first time I had ever been immersed in life in a ‘developing’ country. The town’s sole health clinic was a one-room building with only a spring scale and a bed from the 80’s or 90’s. Families still build their first houses themselves with thatched roofs and hand-cut wood slats and columns.
Yet, what affected me most profoundly was that even though some of the school children struggled everyday with not knowing where their next meal would come from, they still managed to find something to be genuinely happy about.
I never would have understood the community’s particular culture if I had not been able to form what I could only describe as truly exceptional bonds with them. When I began tutoring, I spoke only English to the students, as the teacher wished to increase their English literacy; yet, I felt unable to connect with them. There was something blocking the path towards the formation of a genuine friendship. I tried incessantly for the first hour to try to bond with them on any topic, whether it be sports, food preferences, or family life.
Nothing seemed to be working. However, as I took a step back and began to listen to them instead of just interacting directly, I quickly realized that they only spoke Spanish with each other, though they often lapsed into a Belizean Creole.
I stayed silent for some time as they read to themselves, until I heard one student ask for a pencil in Spanish. Instinctively, I offered mine, at which point the group of five students stopped their work. They looked at me with wide eyes in utter amazement that I had understood what was asked. As if I had just flipped on a switch, the students became enlivened and began speaking incessantly in Spanish with me.
By speaking their language, I opened the door to create meaningful relationships, for I had connected with them in one of the most profound ways – through their language, and by extension their culture.
After that, I found myself falling in love with the small, rural town. The people there were filled with hope and determination to make the most of their current situation, and even more to improve their community. It was by connecting with these children through their native language that I was able to build relationships with them and understand why happiness was the rule, not the exception.
Through having knowledge of their language, I not only truly bonded with them, but also saw the world through their eyes. It was then that I fully realized just how powerful language can be. It was the key that unlocked the obstructive door.
If everyone had access to these keys, there would be no more locked doors, only fluid conversations and connections that have no bounds. I believe that with SLE’s mission to increase global awareness through the teaching of underrepresented languages, we can accomplish precisely that – the creation of genuine friendships that know no boundaries and the unlocking of new worlds previously inaccessible.
Danielle is a rising sophomore at Williams College, where she plans on studying Art History and Economics. She loves to play sports of any kind, read books on rainy days (and any other day), and of course, travel around the world.