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Becoming Bilingual: A Two-Way Street

Documentary producer realizes that learning Spanish opens doors in both directions.


by Erica Bray (J01, GJ02)

As a producer for a true-crime documentary series, I interview detectives, prosecutors, victims and families of victims on a daily basis. It’s a great gig that constantly tests my journalistic prowess. Unfortunately, there’s one thing that’s proven to be a career obstacle at times: my inability to speak Spanish.

It really hit me earlier this year as I interviewed a father who had to relive the day police found his 9-year-old daughter brutally murdered on a California sidewalk. Although these sorts of conversations are never easy to have — especially when there’s a camera involved — what made this situation even more sensitive was the fact that this man’s first language was not English. It was Spanish.

Here I was, tissue box at the ready, asking him to recount the most horrific day in his life — in a language that wasn’t his own. Although he fumbled through the interview in his broken English, this English-and-only-English-speaking journalist couldn’t help thinking that the interview would have been more compelling — and more comfortable for him — if we had done it in Spanish. Alas, all I had in my back pocket were four years of severely underused high school Spanish. That wouldn’t get me through the first question.

English may now be the “common and unifying language” in this country, but with a Latino population that is growing rapidly, having a mastery of the Spanish language is a tremendous door opener for reporters in the United States. When you work in a profession that deals with words, it’s extremely frustrating when words fail you — solely because you don’t know your subject’s language. Interpreters, body language and broken Spanish get a journalist only so far. And relying on a Spanish-speaking interview subject’s ability to convey facts, thoughts and feelings in our so-called mother tongue is neither fair nor effective.

My attitude concerning the Spanish language has changed profoundly from the one I carried into my first year at Northwestern. As an 18-year-old entering the Medill School of Journalism, I was elated that we, the future journalists of the world, were not required to take any foreign language classes. (As part of a diverse cultures requirement, all incoming Medill undergraduates must now take 11 required courses, including three involving a foreign language.) To me, this meant the end of Spanish classes. No more sitting through lectures on the conjugation of irregular verbs in the past tense. No more linguistic gymnastics involving accents and the rolling of rr’s. I thought I had it made.

Of course, I know better now. But I also know that it’s never too late to make a change. So my newest goal is lofty, albeit simple: work at transforming myself into a bilingual (or more realistically, a semi-bilingual) journalist.

My Spanish-speaking campaign kicked off in Antigua, Guatemala, a hotbed for wannabe-Spanish speakers like me. Antigua boasts more than 70 Spanish language schools, and I found one that would admit me for one week for four hours a day, at a cost of $80. My private instructor, Gabriela, had one firm rule: no English allowed.

Suffice it to say, my head was spinning into the second hour of that first day. Between lessons, which were all in Spanish, Gabriela would ask me questions about my family, my job, my travels — and I quickly found myself on the other end of a situation in which I’d put so many interview subjects before. As I struggled to find the right words, I realized what it must have felt like to be that father in California. Like him, I could only hope that I was choosing the right words to convey simple facts, thoughts and feelings. Did I mean what I just said? Did I choose the right verb? Do I sound like an idiot? It was embarrassing to hear myself tripping over words. I could only imagine what that father was thinking when I asked him to convey the complex emotions that followed the death of his daughter. And he had a camera recording his every word. I, on the other hand, had Gabriela there to correct me when I stumbled.

I wish I could say that after a week of lessons I spoke like a pro. This is something that’s obviously going to take time and a lot of practice — not to mention dedication. But those moments of helplessness I felt while speaking with Gabriela serve as my constant motivation. So does my interview with that father in California. When I reflect on these moments, it always leads to a question: how many important and compelling stories in this country fall through the cracks because of the English-Spanish language barrier? I don’t have an answer, of course. But I’m also not one to sit back and allow it to happen to me.

Erica Bray (J01, GJ02) is documentary series producer for Kurtis Productions in Chicago.

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