Language program helps build friendships and bridges cultural gaps

This is part of the series Shore Stories: Life Along the Lakeshore, columns by local and former residents about their lives. 

It can be helpful to know more than one language. It’s useful when traveling and engaging with other people in our community. In most places I travel to, English is commonly known and used, and we don't have to know another language. But let me ask you something: Do you know Spanish? Could you confidently hold a conversation with a native Spanish speaker? 

Lots of people emigrate from Mexico, Central, and South America to the United States. But, when they arrive, many don't know the English language. That makes it extremely difficult for them to communicate and be successful in this country. So, put yourself in their shoes. If you could help them, would you?

Now, for every problem, there is a solution. That is where the Reciprocal Language Partnership comes in.

The Reciprocal Language Partnership was started in 2003, and now has blossomed into a well-known program with well over 1,000 participants having passed through, encouraged by the program’s mission statement: “Building unity and cross-cultural understanding through the teaching and learning of languages.”

One-on-one partnership

Reciprocal Language Partnership pairs native English speakers one on one with native Spanish speakers, each teaching their native language and learning a second language. A teacher gives instruction and direction, then the partners practice together. The benefit of this model is that you can use the language immediately and get feedback right away.  

There are many reasons to take Reciprocal Language Partnership classes. the founder of the program, Amy Devanney says, “These classes are active, fun, engaging, and there’s always a lot of smiles and laughter. In these classes, everyone has a gift to give their partner and everyone is on the same level. Additionally, I have seen some previously held negative stereotypes erased after getting to know people from another culture.” 

In addition to making many connections, you may become lifelong friends with your partner, as Devanney has seen. If you’re new to this area, Reciprocal Language Partnership is a great way to meet new people and make new friends, which makes the transition easier. 
The Reciprocal Language Partnership pairs native English speakers one on one with native Spanish speakers, each teaching their native language and learning a second language.

Building relationships

Take Nancy Hernandez Caudillo, for instance. She is from Mexico and now lives in Holland. She has taken Reciprocal Language Partnership classes for two semesters and loved it. She is still in touch with a woman from the class; they meet every week.

“I joined Reciprocal Language because I was sad when I first moved here because I love to talk to people and engage with others. I had trouble doing that because I barely knew any English,” Hernandez Caudillo says.

She says it helped her a lot because she now feels more involved in the community, and can socialize with people. Hernandez Caudillo liked that the program felt very casual, and her partner felt more like a friend than a teacher or student. She loved sharing her culture and learning about American values and how we live. She has brought many friends to class and is very thankful for this opportunity.  

Recognizing similar words

Mary Terpstra is a native English speaker in Holland who joined Reciprocal Language Partnership after a trip to Ecuador in 2010. She has done three semesters of the program and, afterward, subbed for teachers in the program. After hearing the Spanish language in Ecuador, she realized how similar some words were to English. She also found that she could use the language a lot because of the number of Hispanic people in Holland. She loved the experience.

“I loved the chance to be in a one-on-one relationship with (someone from) another culture,” Terpstra says. She says she learned a lot when teaching English to her partner, such as how hard English is to learn and what most people struggle with. 

If this sounds like something you would be interested in, you can find these classes every Tuesday at Eagles Wings Church in Holland. Eagles Wings Church has hosted this program since 2017, and it is still thriving and continuing to benefit the community. The next class runs 6:15-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, beginning Sept. 5 and ending through Nov. 21. Anyone interested in the Reciprocal Language Partnership program must attend an orientation session before registering for classes. 

Dates and times for orientation are:
  • Tuesday, Aug. 22, 6:15–7:15 p.m. — Orientation for native English speakers.
  • Tuesday, Aug. 22, 7:15–8:15 p.m. — Orientation for native Spanish speakers.
  • Tuesday, Aug. 29, 6:15–7:15 p.m. — Orientation for native English speakers.
  • Tuesday, Aug. 29, 7:15–8:15 p.m. — Orientation for native Spanish speakers.

Informational meetings and classes will be at Eagle's Wings Church, 635 Riley St., Holland, MI 49424. If you have questions, contact Marieli Cruz at 616-738-3850

Ava Devanney is a teen living in Holland and a contributor to The Lakeshore. In her free time, she hanging out with her friends. She also is a ballerina.
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