English Changes Lives – My Story and My Students’By Lorena Siegel
July 10, 2019
Having been born in Mexico City and raised by American parents who sent me to a bilingual school, I’ve always felt that I’ve had a bit of an advantage over other people by being bilingual. It has been like having a variety of superpowers, giving me access to experiences I otherwise would have never had.
I know that English has changed my life, and consequently, it has changed the lives of the students I teach. I’m Lorena, an English teacher in Mexico. This is my story and theirs.
English – Broadening My Horizons from a Young Age
Speaking English has provided me with fun advantages from a young age. I’ve been able to listen in on other people’s conversations because they assumed I didn’t speak their language. I’ve traveled to many places throughout the world without having to worry too much about the language barrier. And having two passports has given me the ability to cue up for the shorter immigration line at the airport when entering Mexico or the US. As well, I enjoy movies, books and music in either language, which opens my intellectual and artistic world to new experiences I otherwise would not have been privy to.
Knowing two languages also got me working at an early age. When I was about 9 years old, I did voice-overs for both Sesame Street, and its Latino counterpart, Plaza Sesamo. I was also hired to do voice-overs into Spanish for a couple of movies, which was great fun, especially because it got me out of school for the day!
While I was at college I worked as a waitress at good hotels because I could communicate with the dishwashers as well as with management. And when I grew tired of that, I was able to find work as an interpreter, translator, and teacher. So, though I may not have the power to leap over tall buildings or stop a runaway train, there’s no doubt in my mind that the reason I’ve always been able to find employment is because I’m bilingual.
Sharing the Gift of Being Bilingual– Working with Refugees in Canada
In the mid-1980s, I saw the movie “El Norte”, about a brother and sister who make their way from Guatemala and illegally cross the border into the US. There was something about the story, about the suffering these people had to endure in order to have a better life, that strangely enough made me question the reason for my bilingualism. It was at that moment that I realized that my ability to speak both Spanish and English was not just circumstantial. I strongly felt, and still do, that my being bilingual was a gift that had to be used to help improve the lives of others. And though I’d been teaching ESL for a few years by the time I had seen the movie, I understood that there was a segment of the population that was going through difficult situations and who needed someone to be their voice when they had no voice of their own.
At the time I lived in Toronto, and I was able to volunteer at the Centro Para Gente de Habla Hispana translating legal documents and doing some interpretation work. After a few weeks of working at the center, I was put into contact with the Toronto Board of Education because the Canadian government provided classes to help the refugees make an easier transition into their new lives, and being bilingual, I could help. My classroom was filled with men and women from South and Central America, Pakistan, and Eastern Europe who had escaped their countries because of political persecution. They had left their families behind, not knowing if they would ever see them again, and though their future was uncertain, leaving their homes was their only option.
My students worked hard during the day and came to class at night to learn the basics of the English language that would help them to communicate and integrate into Canadian society. They were kind, thoughtful, and even humorous, making me laugh during pop quizzes and group presentations. And though it was obvious that my students were grateful for all the help they received, I have to admit that I was humbled by the hard work and dedication it took to start a new life from scratch. Their hopes were to find good jobs, save enough money, and bring their relatives to a place where they could feel safe and live without political persecution.
Helping Students in Mexico Create Better Lives Through English
Though I no longer live in Canada, as a teacher in Mexico, I still teach people who are looking to improve their living situations. Most of my students now are from very small villages in Mexico where they have had very limited schooling and come from low socio-economic backgrounds. I approach my work from the point of view of helping my students to better their lives so they won’t have to make the dangerous trek through the desert and illegally cross into the US.
These are men and women who have little or no source of income in their towns, so they look for jobs in the luxurious hotels, where they work between 8 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, mopping floors, cleaning windows, making beds, gardening the lawns, and preparing an endless number of meals and drinks for the millions of tourists who stay in the all-inclusive hotels that dot the coast of Yucatan. All of my students sacrifice their time to come to class; they attend lessons either before or after their work shift, and those who do come during work schedule stay an extra hour to make up for the time. Many travel between forty minutes to two and a half hours each way just to get to work and back.
The hotel where I work pays for their employees’ English lessons because it wants their staff to be able to communicate and improve their guests’ experience. And my students know that by having this second language, they will earn more money and grow both professionally as well as personally.
How English has Changed My Students’ Lives– In Their Words
Laura, 20 years old, from Mexico City, Mexico/Steward/English Level: Basic 2
I see that the people who can speak English are quickly hired to work in the restaurants and bars where they can make more money, and this is why I want to learn more English. Yesterday, while I was doing my training to be an assistant waitress, I was sent to one of the restaurants and I was able to understand the guests and help them. Before I started learning English, I would meet “gabachos” (English speakers), but I was unable to talk with them. But now I can have a short conversation with people and that makes me feel happy. I’m not so afraid to speak in English anymore because I feel more sure of myself.*
Esther- 35 years old, from Morelos, Mexico- Front Desk and Accounting – Level: Intermediate
Learning English has affected my life in many ways. I’ve met more people and I can interact with guests from other countries. It has also allowed me to learn about other cultures. I work at the front desk, and if I didn’t know English I am certain that I would be doing something that would not give me the chance to make as much money, and I wouldn’t have the same responsibility. I have also made new friends, and I’m able to speak to them about many different things. I have a cousin who is married to a person from Denmark, and we use English to communicate. Another cousin is married to an Australian, and though the accent is sometimes difficult to understand, we are still able to have a conversation. I think that if I didn’t speak English, I would not be able to maintain a close relationship with my cousins who are very important to me, and I would feel a little isolated and alone when I visit my family in the US. My goal is to speak even better by December because I’m planning on visiting my cousins and their husbands again!
Jose- 43 years old, from Mexico City, Mexico/Musician/English Level: Advanced
Learning English has affected my life because I can understand more things every day. I’m a musician, and guests often like to talk to me after the show and they ask me questions about the shows or my music. They also ask for information about where to go in town. I like that I can greet them in English, answer some basic questions, and have conversations with them. I was 20 years old when I started learning English, and I’ve been studying on and off for the past 15 years. I’m also planning on taking an on-line Masters’ Guitar Class that is in English, and if I didn’t know how to speak the language, I would not be able to take the class. I really love what I do, and English has helped me to reach my professional goals.
Yuri- 28 years old, from Chiapas, Mexico/Hotel Reservations Agent/English Level: Advanced
When I started learning English, my goal was to get a job in a hotel because I have always wanted to work in tourism. I now work in the Reservations Department, and I really like my work.
In fact, I have just gotten an even better paying job at another hotel, so I will be leaving my English classes. This makes me sad, but I think that my classes have helped me to improve my English and this is one of the reasons that a new hotel has given me this work and I am looking forward to starting my new job. In my personal life, English is very important because I like to meet new people, see new places, and have new opportunities. For example, I am making plans to travel to Canada so that I can hopefully work learn more English.
Note: Yuri is sorely missed by the group because she always smiled and made us all laugh.
Jaqueline- 20 years old, from Chiapas, Mexico/Steward/English Level: Basic 2
To learn English is a question of taking time to come to class and study in my free moments. I try to watch movies in English with English subtitles. Learning English has changed the way I listen to music. I try to sing along with the songs and translate the words into Spanish so that I can know what the song is about. This makes me happy because I don’t only listen to the song, but I can also understand its meaning! While I’m working, I can now help guests who ask for directions. I do my best to answer them and they give me the gift of a smile when I try to help them.*
Dariel- 26 years old, from Quintana Roo, Mexico/Assistant Bartender/English Level: Basic 2
English is my third language. My first language is Maya and I learned to speak Spanish when I was about 12 years old. I like learning new things and learning English has improved my life in many ways. It has changed my personal life because I now have more self-esteem which makes me feel more secure. I am now an assistant bartender and I’m learning to understand the guests. I can speak with them and know what they need, and this motivates me to keep improving. Every day I try to learn a little more by studying, listening to songs, and reading advertisements. Every day brings me closer to my goal of speaking better English.*
Alexander- 21 years old, from Chiapas, Mexico/Pool Cleaner/English Level: Basic 1
Learning English has helped me because I can now communicate with the guests. It’s also given me the opportunity to do my training in what I really like, which is to be part of the animation team. This gives me more direct contact with the guests, and I like to meet people from all over the world. Learning different languages helps me to have conversations with these people and to learn new things.
After all this time, not a day goes by that I don’t feel fortunate to have the opportunity to help make my students’ lives just a little bit better. My job is a piece of cake compared to what they have to do, and my admiration for them only increases with the passing of the years. In all honesty, I think they’ve taught me much more than I could ever teach them, and I’m both grateful and humbled to have the chance to spend a couple of hours a day in their presence.*
Blanca Mari – 23 years old, from Chiapas, Mexico/Assistant Waitress/English Level: Basic 2
Learning English is very important for me. I have a daughter who lives in Chiapas with my parents, and I need to improve my work situation so that I can bring her to live with me. Learning English has helped me to make more money. When I arrived at the hotel I worked as a public areas cleaner. I am taking English classes and I’ve just finished my training and I’m now working as a waitress and making more money. I’m also learning to communicate with new people because I can speak a little English.
I want to be able to teach my daughter English so that she can use it when she gets older. I like learning English and my parents are proud of me.*
*Translated from Spanish to English
Teaching and Learning
After all this time, not a day goes by that I don’t feel fortunate to have the opportunity to help make my students’ lives just a little bit better. In all honesty, I think they’ve taught me much more than I could ever teach them, and I’m both grateful and humbled to have the chance to spend a couple of hours a day in their presence.