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A ‘‘Thank You’’ letter to my Spanish and Chinese language teachers

Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Katherine Ahn reflects on her experience with the language acquisition course and dedicates the following article to all the language acquisition teachers and educators across the globe.

By Katherine Ahn 

My story starts when I entered my first year of the Middle Years Programme (MYP). My school offered German, French, Spanish, Latin and Chinese. Thus, I chose Spanish and Chinese as my language acquisition classes. As someone who was living and foresaw a future in the United States, I thought choosing Spanish would be extremely beneficial. As for Chinese, it is the most spoken language in the world and I wanted to know the linguistic roots of Chinese to better understand the Korean language, specifically Sino-Korean. Choosing my language classes was the most exciting part of my entrance to the MYP.

Spanish was the first class I had on the first day of secondary school. I was an extremely nervous and reserved student, but super excited to take on this language journey knowing that the school did exceptionally well with language acquisition teaching. Even though I was starting at level one, I was already imagining my future self being in the advanced level class, where fruitful discussions on meaningful topics such as sustainability, health, culture, technology and media took place. While I was daydreaming about my future Spanish-speaking self, my teacher passed out a handout that stated ‘100% ESPANOL’ in bold and huge font size.

My first reaction was—I am going to fail this class. I started doubting myself and my future expectations with the Spanish language. This doubt fused into my quizzes on verb conjugations (-ar, -er and -ir) and not even understanding what yo, tú, él, ella, usted, nosotros, vosotros, ellos, ellas and ustedes meant. However, as the years quickly passed by, I was already at an intermediate level; writing essays, reading texts and somehow being able to express 70% of what I wanted to say. It was to the point where I did not need to think in English and then in Spanish to convey my thoughts. From that point on, my doubts faded away and my confidence in the Spanish language blossomed.

“In other words, because my Spanish teachers believed in my abilities, I did not give up on my Spanish”.

While my confidence grew, I definitely faced my own obstacles related to my speaking abilities. The most common one that arose came from my Spanish and Latin American peers. They would say that I would forever be seen as a “gringa, gringa asiana, chinita” in their eyes. While these words can be a form of endearment, they are used to reference someone who is foreign. To be honest, yes, those comments hurt, but that did not stop me from choosing Spanish as my Language B and continuing to use it. What pushed me to have this mindset were my Spanish teachers: Señora Ilse Ortega, Señora Elena Zapico and Señor Rigoberto Cárdenas .

These teachers believed in me. They also taught me to view such comments not as a way to bring me down but as a way for me to be more persistent and determined to use my Spanish. In other words, because my Spanish teachers believed in my abilities, I did not give up on my Spanish.

Even though I am a Korean American, with nothing about me being Spanish, my love for languages started when I began learning Spanish. It was not because of the linguistic novices it holds that made me passionate about learning the language, but the teachers. The faculty in our school’s Spanish department gave me the motivation and love to never give up on the language. I felt that they were truly guiding me in my language journey. It was one of the many classes where the teachers valued me in somewhat of a familial way.

“Their encouraging comments allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of myself”.

For example, I was able to volunteer for my Spanish teacher, Señora Elena Zapico, where she was a workshop leader in a 2013 IB workshop presenting Harvard University’s Project Zero’s Visible Thinking exercise called, “See, Think and Wonder”. When Señora Zapico asked me to be one of her workshop assistants, I was honored and thrilled to be a part of it. We became close and talked about her passion for language pedagogy, which also became one of my passions in pursuing a major in linguistics at university.

In addition, my Chinese teachers always cheered for me inside and outside the classroom. At times, when I had such bad days, my Chinese teachers were the ones who would encourage me that I had the grit and passion to do well in language learning. Their encouraging comments allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of myself and that’s when I realized how much language teachers sincerely care about their students.

I want to finally say to all my language acquisition teachers:

Thank you for making me feel confident in myself and comfortable being uncomfortable. Thank you for showing me that it is worth all the work. Even when I doubted myself and skipped classes because I was scared of making mistakes, you showed me that effort and a high motivation level make teachers admire their students. You also showed me that making mistakes is life and growth.

Thank you for never doubting me. Even when I came to show you my essay unsure of what I had written for the past hour, you made sure I knew that I had nothing to worry about. When I wasn’t so sure of my own abilities, you never questioned me. You showed me how to accept challenges head on and not back down. You taught me how to enjoy language and culture and appreciate every second of it. You sent me into this admiration of other languages that I had not experienced before.

Just a reminder to all language acquisition teachers: you all can teach so much more than language.

Below are memoirs from other IB alumni across Asia and the Americas about their IB Language Acquisition instructors:

Testimonial #1

  • Name: Andrew Ha
  • School: Seoul Foreign School
  • Location of school: Seoul, South Korea
  • Graduation year: 2016
  • Language B: Korean B standard level (SL)
  • Story: Park Kwanghee was my IB Korean B higher level (HL) teacher during my time in the DP. She made the course very entertaining by utilizing all her resources to have her students stay engaged throughout the full period. I still fondly remember how she asked casual questions by relating student life to our IB work/paper questions.

Testimonial #2

  • Name: Soye Han
  • School: Smoky Hill High School
  • Location of school: Denver, Colorado, USA
  • Graduation year: 2016
  • Language B: Spanish B higher level (HL)
  • Story: I remember feeling really intimidated by my Spanish teacher because she seemed like a strict person, spoke so quickly and did not use English so that we would be forced to improve. But after getting to know her, she became one of my favorite teachers because she was such a caring person underneath her exterior and really wanted us to learn. She never made us feel bad for being wrong. I always felt like she had high expectations for me, which made me want to be better. I genuinely wanted to impress her because when I succeeded at something, she celebrated it like it was her own success.

Testimonial #3

  • Name: Sunny Kim
  • School: United World College of South East Asia
  • Location of school: Singapore
  • Graduation year: 2019
  • Language B: Chinese B standard level (SL)
  • Story: Language B can be challenging to many because it is not one’s mother tongue language. Thanks to my teacher’s efforts and words of encouragement, I was able to reach a certain level of fluency in Chinese. Currently, I am making very good use of this skill in so many situations and therefore feel so grateful to my Chinese Language B teacher for being so patient with all of us!

Testimonial #4

  • Name: Paul Beliando
  • School: Prem Tinsulanonda International School
  • Location of school: Chiang Mai, Thailand
  • Graduation year: 2020
  • Language B: French B higher level (HL)
  • Story: Mr Bernard Autet was my French B HL teacher for both MYP and DP classes. Mr Autet was a great teacher who made every class super engaging and fun. More importantly, you could really see that he loved his job and truly cared for his students. He made sure we were all ready for the final exams and supported us whenever we needed help or advice even if it was not class related. To date, Mr Autet has been one of the best teachers I’ve ever met and I am truly grateful to have met him as he was an integral part of my IB journey!

Testimonial #5

  • Name: Eileen Wang
  • School: World Foreign Language Academy
  • Location of school: Shanghai, China
  • Graduation year: 2016
  • Language B: French ab initio
  • Story: He genuinely cares about his students. I feel like he’s the teacher on the stage and our friend off the stage. He told us his funny experience studying in France. He led our trip to Lyon, which was a great introduction to French culture. He never gave us pressure on grades like all the other teachers, but we were willing to study because he made us feel like French is not really that boring. In general, I could see his enthusiasm towards teaching (otherwise, he wouldn’t come back to teach again after studying abroad).

Katherine Ahn is a Middle Years Programme (MYP) and Diploma Programme (DP) of Atlanta International School in Atlanta, GA USA. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics and Psychology at Emory University and continues to explore more about international education. Fun fact: she is a matcha latte addict and pāo de queijo (Brazilian cheese balls) lover. You can connect with Katherine through LinkedIn and on Instagram.  

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at [email protected]We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube!