William D. Webber (he/his), Associate Director of Membership at Partners of the Americas, shares his experience becoming fluent in French and Spanish and how it changed the trajectory of his life.
What led you to study language?
Like most students across the United States, middle and high school requires studying a foreign language. I grew up in a very small, rural town in Northern New York (approximately 30 minutes from the border to Québec). With the choice to study French or Spanish, French was the most logical option since I’d be able to understand and talk to our French-Canadian neighbors!
Honestly, my French journey didn’t begin very smoothly. The first two years were more difficult than I like to admit. I specifically remember failing a quiz on the differences between quel, quelle, quels, and quelles (for non-French speakers, these are all pronounced the same). It wasn’t until 9th grade that the language started to click, changing my life forever. I fell in love with the language, and I wanted to share that love and passion with others, soI decided to become a high school French teacher. But a year later, this dream changed when my best friend mentioned my French-teaching goals to her Spanish teacher. The Spanish teacher advised me to consider adding Spanish to my language credentials to become more competitive in the job market. Accepting her advice, I enrolled in her class, and by senior year I was in college-level courses in both languages.
After graduating from undergrad with majors in French and Spanish, I went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and taught middle school English at a private school. When that ended, I traveled throughout South America, spending time in São Paulo, Brazil, which catapulted my learning of Portuguese.
Since then, languages have been like a puzzle that I want to solve. I’ve also dabbled in Arabic, Italian, Esperanto, German, Romanian, and Swahili. There’s a joy of learning languages and communicating with native speakers and seeing their entire demeanors change as soon as they hear a foreigner, let alone an American, speaking their language. It’s a great way to break the ice and build that rapport.
How has language learning influenced your personal and professional life?
Language learning has significantly influenced my personal and professional life. It t has been at the core of both and continues to contribute in immense ways because I have had more opportunities than I would have had without them. Personally, I would not have been able to travel so easily across continents and meet so many incredible people in their language. Frankly, I would not have been able to understand as many English words without knowing the roots and etymology of the languages I speak. Professionally, language learning has opened a vast number of opportunities, and I would not be working for the organization I work for today, Partners of the Americas. I would not have been able to build a substantial international network of colleagues and would not have been able to learn the intricacies of intercultural competencies. Language learning has allowed me to give back and share this passion with others as I teach them about language and the power, pride, and confidence that language learning brings.
Looking at your career, what was the impact of language learning?
My language learning and skills have certainly directly impacted my career path. If I did not have my Spanish skills, I would not have my current position. In my daily work, I assist international organizations with constituents throughout North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean in being engaged and active within our network. Our primary working languages are English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Was there a personal setback you faced which you later realized was an advantage?
I lost my mother to cancer after my first year of undergrad at age 19. I was supposed to leave for Barcelona, Spain, the next week but canceled and returned to Fredonia to continue my studies. Although a deeply painful moment in my life, I believe there was a silver lining. My mother was always proud of me; I know that. And I know that she would have wanted me to continue pushing myself, so I did. From this tragedy, I learned that life is short, and you never know what can happen next, so it is best to live your life to the fullest while you can. This is exactly why I took to traveling and seeing the world because that confidence and understanding of life is what I believe to be the last and greatest gift she gave me.
Why should underrepresented individuals care about learning other languages?
I believe underrepresented individuals should care about learning other languages for various reasons. These reasons include that speaking a second language makes you more competitive in the job market where language abilities are highly valued; it broadens your horizons and allows you to connect with more people from across the world. Arguably, it makes you smarter, primarily in emotional intelligence. Language learning can help elevate underrepresented individuals’ voices.
How could the education/higher ed/international ed sector as a whole become more inclusive of language learning? What gaps do you see?
As with most everything, there are opportunities for growth and improvement, and the language-learning field in education/higher ed/international ed sector is no different. I offer the following suggestions:
1. Take heritage speakers more seriously and value them; don’t put these individuals down if they don’t speak “like the textbook.”
2. Teach the real language; literature is important, but so is having a full conversation or dialogue with idiomatic expressions and cultural nuances.
3. Provide more training opportunities for modern language teachers who could improve their language acquisition pedagogies and methodologies in the classroom.
4. Partner with organizations and communities and create connections between students learning each other’s languages.
5. Encourage, train, and employ native speakers in foreign language classrooms as either the main teacher or a teaching assistant.
6. Aim to have foreign language classes in every school regardless of socioeconomic status.
7. Language learning can be quite costly, so this sector should strive to make language learning more accessible and equitable across the board so that anyone interested may do so.
What advice do you have for others pursuing language studies?
Just Do It! Language learning is a skill that brings multiple benefits. Not only will you be able to speak and understand another language (opening yourself up to the possibility of new worlds of movies, television, music, literature, and meeting thousands of more people), but it also helps you understand your native language better. Learning another language is not easy, but what is? Take your time and understand that consistency is key. The more you practice, the more you will see yourself improving.
Select a language that you feel most comfortable with, not one that others think you should learn/study. Like most hobbies or endeavors, the worst thing you can do is do something you don’t enjoy. If you’re not enjoying it and having fun, you probably won’t get very far. Select a language that brings you joy and do what’s best for you.
If there are multiple dialects to the language, try to focus your attention on one of them.
Take Spanish, for example, which is the official language of approximately 20 countries. They are not all the same, and cultural and vocabulary nuances make communicating fun, thought-provoking, and sometimes embarrassing. In my case, I lived in Argentina, so I was working on going further with the Argentine dialect of Spanish for a time. My advice is to dig deep into a language by selecting and running with one of the dialects.
Watch movies/television and listen to music and podcasts as much as you can.
To really engrain the pronunciation and the cadence of the language you are learning, the best way to do so is to start by listening. Listen, listen, listen. Think of your native language and how you weren’t born and immediately began speaking. You spent the first years of life silently waiting and listening before saying your first words. Watching movies and listening to music and podcasts in your target language will help train your brain to switch the ‘radio channel’ to that language’s frequency.
Practice in the mirror and talk to yourself (babble like a toddler).
It might sound unusual, but mimicking native speakers can help you learn the proper pronunciation and mouth (lips and tongue) placement to say words and phrases correctly so as not to be misunderstood. You’ll certainly make yourself look more impressive to native speakers. And don’t worry, you aren’t “making fun” of them.
One of the most tried and true methods I have taken is to talk to myself in my target language, especially if there is no one around with whom you can practice. Try asking questions and responding, explaining what you’re doing, and pointing out various objects you encounter in your daily routine –practice in the mirror, in the shower, or while doing household chores. I’ve had tremendous success with this method (with only a few curious looks from strangers or roommates).
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a perfectionist. If I think I’m not going to be at a point where I am at my best, I generally don’t want to do it. Yes, I’m working on it, and language learning has helped!. Language learning is inherently lined with making mistakes. You will mispronounce words and spell them wrong; You will not conjugate every verb correctly –and that’s fine. We weren’t born speaking our languages fluently. We learned at a young age that we say “went” instead of “goed.” It’s the same thing when learning another language.
William D. Webber is the Associate Director of Membership at Partners of the Americas. In this role, William oversees membership operations, the Chapter network, and Partners Campus. He previously served as the Program Officer for the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund. William earned his M.A. in International Education from The George Washington University, a B.S. in International Studies, and a B.A. in French and Spanish from The State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia. When not working, he enjoys going to the gym, attempting annual reading challenges, and dancing like nobody's watching!