You Have the Right to Remain Silent: Struggling with Language Proficiency in an Academic Setting

April 7, 2014
Language Proficiency

foreign-correspondent badge final I love learning, and I love school. Whenever I had to stay home sick as a kid, I would make my mom play school so I wouldn’t “fall behind” on the lessons. That being said, I love academic challenges and usually have something to show for my effort and passion for academia–until I took Sociolingüísticas at Universidad de Salamanca with Profesora María González Bernal.*

The only way I can accurately capture this experience is through the following conversation:

“Hey Ray, where are you headed?”

“Oh nowhere, just the ninth circle of hell!”

For Harry Potter fans, this professor is Dolores Umbridge incarnate. She is just as mean, intimidating, and diabolical as the fifth Harry Potter villain. She even looks like Umbridge, it’s uncanny. And by “uncanny,” I mean frightening.

There were six students from my program enrolled in this class, as well as many international students. One student dropped immediately because he could tell we were in for a rough ride. Sir, I salute your foresight.

This professor was very disrespectful to foreign students. During one particular class, she was mumbling something to herself, but was actually asking one (American) student to get the key for the projector. When the student was confused, the professor snapped at her, “If you can’t understand the language, get out of my class.”

Another time, I was reviewing notes from the previous lecture with my friend before class, and the professor made a point to call us out. “You always speak in English. That’s not good.” I don’t embarrass easily, but if the ground opened up and swallowed me whole, I would’ve gladly welcomed it.

Maybe our professor is so bitter towards foreigners because she had a negative experience studying abroad.

My biggest source of stress came from the final exam. We approached her the first day of class for permission to take the final early, since our program ends three weeks earlier than the university. Initially she agreed, but refused to tell us the actual date. After waiting six weeks with repeated requests for information, she set the exam date for May 23. This was too late since most of us would be home by then. She refused to change the date, saying that there wouldn’t be sufficient time to cover the material and she wouldn’t give us an adjusted exam.

She is entitled to run the class however she wants, but if she was unwilling to accommodate us for the final, she should have told us when we asked during the first week of classes. It’s not like I’m dying to spend three hours per week with her anyway.

Maybe our professor is so bitter towards foreigners because she had a negative experience studying abroad. When we petitioned to change the exam, her response was, “When I studied in the US, I adopted your timetable.” I wasn’t even alive when you studied abroad, and I’m pretty sure America was still a colony then anyway, you miserable old bat.

All of us are in the process of formally withdrawing from all of this chaos. I wasn’t expecting the university system to be similar to the US, nor was I expecting some foreign professor to baby me throughout the semester. But I don’t need all of the agita this class is giving me. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would rather take the withdrawal and preserve whatever is left of my sanity. I think I made the right decision; but never in my life have I felt so stupid, incompetent, and useless.

However, studying abroad is more about the things you learn outside of the classroom.

However, studying abroad is more about the things you learn outside of the classroom. This experience taught me what it is like to be treated by authority not only as a foreigner, but as a non-native speaker.

Acculturation is the contact between a cultural group and a host culture that changes either or both groups. It’s a phenomenon specifically applied to immigrant populations. The largest factor of acculturation is language acquisition. Limited English proficiency is found in 51% of US immigrants. Limited proficiency in the dominant culture’s language adversely affects mental and physical health.

I am in no way comparing my white-girl, university-sponsored experience to that of a US immigrant. I am a (privileged) college student studying abroad, thanks in equal part to my scholarships, financial aid, and careful financial saving. While I am not fluent in Spanish, I have enough education to be proficient in written/conversational Spanish. Although English is not widely spoken in Salamanca, there are more English resources abroad than there are foreign-language resources in the US. My experience during this semester is vastly different compared to someone who immigrated to the US under different circumstances.

You Have the Right to Remain Silent: Struggling with Language Proficiency in an Academic Setting

Latinos are the largest minority group in the US, and will triple in size by 2050. Spanish is taught in schools and many public places incorporate Spanish, yet the language is vastly underrepresented. It makes sense to be more accommodating to other populations, so as to combat the negative mental health effects of acculturation.

Lack of language proficiency adversely affects healthcare access. A few weeks ago, I had strep throat. The student affairs coordinator escorted me to the (private) clinic’s office, where I received (insured, with co-pay reimbursement) medical attention and medicine. The coordinator communicated on my behalf, because I was so sick I could barely even speak English. Now imagine a recently-arrived immigrant to the US in the same situation. Exactly.

But my experience gave me a new appreciation of my own privilege, and a small idea of what life might be like for those without. When that professor criticized us for speaking English, part of me agreed with her: we are here learning Spanish and the best way is to practice. But good God, lady; I need a break. I’m exhausted, stressed, overworked, sick, and I miss my family, and you’re agitated because I asked my friend a question in English? Nobody should be intimidated from learning, regardless of language ability.

This is the most I’ve learned from a class I’m not even completing.

(*Names changed to protect the innocent, a.k.a. me).



Allen, M., et al. (2008). The relationship between Spanish language use and substance use behaviors among Latino youth: a social network approach. Journal of Adolescent Health, 43, 372-379.

Dillon, F. R., et al. (2012). Alcohol misuse among recent Latino immigrants: the protective role
of pre-immigration familismo. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

Nagayama Hall, G. C. (2010). Multicultural Psychology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Zang, W., et al. (2012). Limited English proficiency and psychological distress among Latinos
and Asian Americans. Social Science & Medicine, 75, 1006-1014.

About Ray Gallagher

Ray Gallagher, a student at Muhlenberg College, studied abroad at the University of Salamanca in Spain.

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