Fast Track to Fluency

February 25, 2013 | Borough of Manhattan Community College, Uncategorized

Sarah Ragasa entered BMCC speaking two languages. Now she speaks five.

Born in the Philippines, Sarah emigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was nine. In seventh grade, she was required to choose a foreign language to study.

“The options were French, Latin and Spanish,” she recalls. “I chose Spanish because it was most similar to Tagalog, the language my parents spoke at home.”

She threw herself into the study of Spanish and kept at for the next five years. “All of a sudden, in high school, I found that I was fluent,” she says. “I was surprised.”

Moving on to French—and then Italian
When Sarah entered BMCC, it was only natural that she’d continue her studies in Spanish. She also signed up for French and took to it with astonishing ease.

“I realized I had a knack for learning languages, especially Romance languages,” she says.

So, the following semester she added Italian, registering for an introductory course taught by professor Tom Means.  “He’s a great teacher who emphasizes the practical applications of a language rather than just drills and rote memorization,” Sarah says.

Today, with just one semester of French and one of Italian behind her, Sarah speaks both languages with a level of proficiency that defies explanation.

“I’ve been teaching college for 15 years and can count on the fingers of one hand the number of students I’ve encountered who are as proficient in four languages as Sarah is in five,” says Means.

His student has a theory. “I think becoming fluent in a foreign language comes down to being good in your own language,” Sarah says. “Although I lived in Philippines as a child, I’ve always considered English my first language, and English was always my favorite subject in middle and high school. If I hadn’t understood the structure of a sentence in English, I doubt I could have understood it in a different language. Knowing your native language firsthand is key.”

An appetite for hard work also helps.
“There’s really no shortcut to mastering the grammar and syntax of a language, and I’m not sure that being bilingual expedites the process,” says Means. “You need to put in the effort and time.”
Sarah attributes her fluency in Spanish—the first of three foreign languages she would master—to spending six years studying, drilling and memorizing.

“There are rules you just can’t get around,” she says. “It’s a lot of work.”¿

From polite phrases to fluency
That said, Italian came relatively easier to her. “Italian is a very musical language,” she says. “And of all the languages I’ve studied, I find have the easiest time with pronunciation with Italian.”

As a high school graduation gift, Sarah’s grandmother took her on a month-long tour of Europe.

“I came to love the Italian lifestyle, Italian culture—and especially Italian food,” she says. “But it was frustrating not to speak the language. I knew a few some polite expressions, but couldn’t string together a sentence and really wanted to be able to do that. It’s one of the experiences that pushed me toward focusing on learning foreign languages.”

A Liberal Arts major, Sarah is uncertain when she’ll complete her studies at BMCC.

“I’m planning on taking a semester abroad in France,” she says. “When I do that—and get back to BMCC—will determine when I can graduate.” Eventually she’d like to pursue a career as a translator or tour guide. “I’d love to work in the travel industry,” she says.

Means has high hopes for his student. “Sarah is now at a point where she can really develop a professional level of proficiency in all three of the languages she’s studied at BMCC.”

As a rule, language teachers “follow this profession because we love languages—and having a student like Sarah makes you realize there are students who love languages as much as you do,” he says. “It also gives me hope that there are other Sarahs out there.”