What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Spanish Class

Given a year to study at Harvard on an Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellowship, and to try to learn all I can about bilingualism, I decide to find out what language classes are like on campus. I’ve heard that college language classes are better than they used to be back when I struggled with German in the 1970s. So I’m thinking I’ll interview instructors and students, and maybe sit in on a class or two.

My first step is to ask for a meeting with the head of Spanish language instruction, Adriana Gutiérrez, Senior Preceptor in Romance Languages and Literatures.

A cold John Harvard gazes over his yard, 2 February 2015

I meet Adriana in her pretty, warm office on the fourth floor of Boylston Hall, an unremarkable stone and metal building that sits behind the massive Widener Library on Harvard Yard. It is January 2015, just before the arrival of blizzards that will set records in Boston and close the campus for an unprecedented three days. I drape my coat over one of her chairs and unbutton my sweater.

Adriana is a petite Mexican-American. She asks me where I am with my Spanish (intermediate, I offer). I think she might then begin speaking in Spanish, but she spares me and continues in English. She explains the communicative, or post-communicative, method they use today. Students do study grammar, but not more than half of any class is devoted to it. Instead, most of the class is conversation. Students talk about stories and poems they have read, or movies they’ve watched outside of class. The emphasis is on listening and speaking, while at the same time, learning about Latino culture as it is expressed in many countries.

And it’s more than just language skills Harvard cares about. “Our goal is to help reduce stereotyping during the process of learning about the language and the different countries and cultures that speak Spanish, and help create transcultural and translingual students,” Adriana explains.

She adds: “But if you really want to understand how we do it, you should take a class yourself.”

Her office suddenly feels hot. The thought of taking a Spanish class with Harvard undergraduates makes my heart skip a beat.

College flashback

I did my undergrad degree at the University of California, San Diego. I still remember my oral examination at the end of my freshman German class.

When I entered the small, windowless room, the professor was already there, waiting to have a five-minute conversation — in German. Things started off well enough with customary greetings, but then she asked me questions I only partially understood. I stumbled along, hoping I could fake my way through with the few sentences of German I knew. But with a deepening frown on her face, she said, “Okay, let’s talk about something else.” The problem was, I thought she said, “You can go now,” and so I headed for the door.

She pulled me back into my seat.

Things didn’t go well after that, which is to say, I flunked.

I was told I could retake the oral exam after another German language class. “Or…” (my ears perked up) “you can take a German literature class.” I jumped at that, and spent the next semester reading how Gregor Samsa woke up in the morning to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach. Ten weeks of this Kafka hell were better than another five minutes in the oral examination room.

But now, sitting here in Adriana’s office, I realize she is right. If I want to really understand what it’s like, I do need to actually take a class. Besides, my Spanish could use the help. I hadn’t taken a Spanish class since sixth grade and then didn’t get beyond “Hola, Pepito, como estas?”

310 Sever Hall

At 1:00 in the afternoon the following Monday, I show up for the first day of “Spanish C: Intermediate” at Sever Hall. Sever is a stately and ornate red brick building that must have been the height of fashion when it opened its thick oak doors in 1870. The crimson carpets between the outer and inner doors are built to take the snow and grit stamped out of the thousands of boots that enter every winter day. A bit of romance still clings to this fortress of a building, in which generations of Roosevelts and Kennedys have looked up expectantly at instructors.

Walking to Sever Hall, 12 February 2015

Climbing two flights of the wide central staircase, I enter room 310 ten minutes early, which is a good thing, since soon, more than 50 students file in — too many for the small room, and so they line up along the walls when our teacher begins. (As at most American universities today, Spanish is the most popular language at Harvard.)

María Ramírez López apologizes for the crowding and explains that we will soon be divided into sections of no more than 15 students so that we’ll all have plenty of chances to speak.

She speaks only in Spanish, which I partially understand, but looking around it seems that most of the students understand her perfectly, and some are already speaking back in impressive Spanish. While she passes around our first homework, I wonder, “Just how far over my head am I?”

Fortunately, classes are canceled the next day because of snow, which gives me more time to plot a survival plan.

On Wednesday, I trudge through snow drifts to the same classroom and find that María was true to her word about reducing class size. She and I are the only two people in class. When the bells begin to peal at nearby Memorial Church signaling 1 pm, students start to arrive; by 10 minutes after the hour, there are 12 students, freshmen and sophomores mostly, and one old guy, who would be me.

María starts conversations and works her way around the semicircle of chairs, making sure everyone participates, including me. She also breaks us into groups of three or four for a few minutes, to practice among ourselves.

I appreciate that the students don’t seem to treat me any differently, even though I’m old enough to be their grandfather. Yet when class ends at 2:00, I realize that if this were a survivor show, I would be voted off the island. I am definitely the weakest at understanding and speaking. And I’m not even sure I should try to participate. The undergrads are taking this for a grade, after all, which many need to get into graduate schools of one type or another. I am an interloper. So I go to office hours that first week to ask María if I should try to participate in class or just sit back and observe.

“Of course, you must participate!” she tells me in Spanish. “There is no other way for you to learn.” I’m both happy and scared to hear this. It feels uncomfortable to go from being the CEO of my own company, where I had authority and was usually coaching younger people to perform, to being a student with no authority who is being coached by teachers younger than me.

After our first week, I make a list in my notebook about how things stack up.

My classmates’ advantages:

· They are smarter than me.

· They take tests really well.

· They have had more Spanish, including grammar, and quite recently.

· They have young, supple minds.

· They can hear perfectly well, whereas my hearing is starting to go.

· They are highly motivated to get good grades.

· They seem to relish the mental struggle.

My advantages:

  • I show up on time.
Leaving Sever Hall after class

And now I have a clear idea of what’s in store: classes four days a week, four hour-long written exams, four two-page papers (first and second drafts), a presentation on “Español en la calle,” which requires me to take photos or videos of Spanish in the streets, and a 10-minute oral presentation with a partner. I have to do this in one week’s less time than everybody else because I’ll be going off to a conference in Australia to pretend I’m a CEO again. (I have to get special permission to miss four classes and not be thrown out of the class.)

Clearly, I will need all the help I can get to not make a complete idiot of myself in front of my teacher and classmates.

I decide to attend all the office hours I can. (It turns out undergraduates these days apparently don’t like office hours very much, preferring to engage virtually, so I didn’t have to fight for a slot to see María every week.) I attend the extra tutoring sessions the language department offers once a week for 30 minutes. I go to “Mesa Redonda” (roundtable) dinners in the freshman dining hall. Once a week, an instructor dines with students who want to practice Mandarin, Italian, German, Spanish, and other languages.

At these dinners, I not only learn some Spanish, but also become acquainted with the diet of the species known as College Freshman. The following is the inventory on a tray that a male freshman sets down across the table from me:

  • Two bananas
  • An overflowing platter of roast beef, mashed potatoes and vegetables, flooded with gravy
  • Large glass of milk
  • Coffee
  • One bowl of cherry cobbler
  • Two ice cream sandwiches
  • Three peanut butter cookies the size of small pancakes

I try not to stare as I sip my cup of tea. (I would eat later, preferring to concentrate on the conversation.)

As at some other colleges, all the freshmen at Harvard eat together. Their dining hall is a grandiloquent cavern called Annenberg Hall, which could be a set for Hogwarts. (In the spring, freshmen are assigned at random to one of the 12 residential houses, where they will live for the following three years.)

On a typical evening at Mesa Redonda, there is one Chinese American student whose Spanish is actually even worse than mine (although she is fluent in Mandarin), an enthusiastic native speaker from Argentina, whom our instructor happily chats with, a nerdy fellow who rattles off Spanish like a champ (but I can tell speed rather than accuracy is his thing), and me, the gray-haired guy, struggling to hear in this monumental hall alive with jovial feasting.

I take every opportunity Harvard offers its language students, but I know that won’t be enough, so I hire a private language tutor. Her name is Luz Zuluaga, from Colombia; I meet with her once or twice a week for her to help with my grammar and conversation, but not to correct my papers, which would be cheating. Our instructor wants to see our writing raw, so she can discern our progress.

My patient tutor Luz Zuluaga

Test day

As the date for our first exam looms, I am nervous. It has been decades since I took a college test. María is nice enough to tell us exactly what will be on the test, but that doesn’t help much, since I could have used months to study her list of topics.

When we show up at Sever 310 on test day, the chairs have been rearranged from their usual semicircle into tight horizontal rows, I guess to make it harder to look over someone’s shoulder. We hand María our two-pound textbooks so she can check off that we have done all our grammar assignments. Then she hands us two pages stapled together, with questions on both sides.

We sit down and spend the hour hunched over our exams. Some of the questions are sentence completion, but the hard stuff is the essays about the articles and poems we’ve read. It’s all in Spanish, of course. I set about my test in a mild panic.

After about 40 minutes, some of my classmates are already turning in their papers, but I have braced myself for that. I am determined to work until María pulls my test from under my pen. When she finally says time’s up, I am relieved that there are a few other students still sitting there with me.

How did I do? I will have to wait a few days to get my test back, but the truth is, I don’t know. I guessed about some of my answers, but at least I finished.

What new technology?

I’m surprised that there isn’t much use of new technology in our course. We do use the class website for schedules, assignments and readings, and María uses PowerPoint in class to present a new grammatical rule, but we don’t use the university language lab. I ask Adriana Gutiérrez why not.

“Students do go to the language lab in order to watch the movies we require in our courses; and they also go if they need technical support with their projects (podcast and video editing), but there is really no need to go to the language lab to do oral drills anymore, which is what students used to do before. We know now, through research, that grammar drills and repetition do not help language acquisition. We prefer to engage in all four skills, face-to-face, in the classroom.” The four skills are reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Later I attend an international conference on the use of technology in language learning. It is held every two years and, conveniently enough, it was held at Harvard when I was there. The conference is called Foreign Language Education & Technology, and I have the chance to talk at length with several people who run language labs at universities.

Dick Feldman, Director of the Cornell University Language Learning Center, explained that college language labs have been challenged by just how rapidly things have changed. Now any student’s laptop and mobile device can do what even the most capable language labs could not just a few years ago. “Back in my college years, the lab was where you went to hear recordings and watch movies. Now students can do all that and more with their laptops,” he explained.

There is still innovation going on in that space — for example, the film clip library at UC Berkeley that Mark Kaiser, who presented at the conference, runs. But there is more innovation going on now on hundreds of new sites and apps such as WeSpeke, HelloTalk, Verbling, Yabla, and Duolingo that allows language learners to use inventive software and connect live with other people. Moreover, most of these are free, or inexpensive.

To get another perspective on technology in the classroom, I attend a session that two language experts from MIT run. The session is packed, mostly with college teachers who want to know what their colleagues at MIT are doing with language technology. Margarita Ribas Groeger, Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Director of the Spanish Language Program at MIT, explains that she’s almost embarrassed at the simplicity of the technology she uses. “Digital tools such as multimedia discussion forums (Voicethread) or online bulletin boards (Padlet) are extremely straightforward and open up new possibilities to foster meaningful communication and collaboration in the target language,” Margarita tells me. “But,” she adds, “they are still no substitute for classroom interaction.”

“Students at MIT are using technology all day and are at their screens all the time,” Margarita says. They don’t want to do that for language. There is no language requirement at MIT, so the students take language because they want to. They want the human interaction.”

The smarts behind the course

Back in 310 Sever, every day we have homework not only in our textbook, but on separate sheets as well. One day as class starts, I can’t find mine. I desperately rummage through my bag twice, but no luck. I fall back to the basics: “Se la comió mi perro.” (My dog ate it.)

Besides the volume of work, several other things impress me about the course. First, María almost never corrects what any of us says. I learn later this is by design. María and the other instructors have learned that there is more to be gained by allowing students to speak imperfectly than by correcting them, which can have a chilling effect. By allowing us to babble on, never making fun or correcting us, she creates an atmosphere in which we are all eager to speak. The emphasis is on conveying meaning rather than on accuracy.

Or as María later explains to me via email after class, “Students should be in a motivated, calm, and productive learning environment in which they will feel confident to take risks and to participate. I always let them know that making mistakes is a natural step of learning a second language, and that I am not there to judge them but to guide them through the learning process. I encourage them to participate without distressing about making mistakes.”

She does, in fact, correct us, but in such a wonderfully stealthy way that we don’t really know she’s doing it. She’ll rephrase what we (incorrectly) say, emphasizing the part that needs correcting. “Sometimes I paraphrase what students said with a question or comment. In this way they don’t feel intimidated and it doesn’t break the flow of the conversation,” she adds.

And not surprisingly, there’s a reason why she breaks us up into small groups.

“I consider that interactive activities are necessary in order to give as much practice as possible. Working in pairs and small groups gives students the chance to develop communication skills,” María says. “I design my classes to be very interactive so as to reinforce the new materials presented.” As for grammar exercises, she leaves those for homework.

I am also impressed by the readings for the course. (As Adriana reminded me, “The content of the curriculum has been carefully planned. The emphasis is on learning not only the language, but the culture — and therefore the history and the literature.”) We are assigned serious poetry and essays on meaty topics concerning Latin America — the political issues, the struggles of women and the poor, the perilous lives of immigrants. I learn about Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú. She didn’t learn Spanish until she was 20, and did so in order to be able to convey her story of coming of age as an Indian in Guatemala, pulling herself out of poverty and helping her people to do the same.

The readings would have been heavy going in English; in Spanish they are doubly challenging. Plus, we are expected to discuss and write about the reading. No Dick and Jane stuff here.

But there is also the sheer beauty of Latin American literature. We read poems by Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Barbara Delano, Luisa Valenzuela, Julio Cortázar, Nicolás Guillén, and Tino Villanueva. And while it is a struggle, I realize this is more than a Spanish class: it is a history and literature class, too. In the more advanced language classes on campus, students read literature exclusively and write about it and discuss it. But even in this intermediate class, we are getting used to that.

And it isn’t all serious. María plays the song “Me Gustas Tú” by Manu Chao, which has us all laughing.

“I use songs as an entertaining way to learn and at the same time practice the language,” María explains to me. “Laughing at ourselves as we sing is a great way to defuse tension. I always try to include some humor in class because I understand that learning a second language can be intimidating.”

Peer pressure

A few days later, María waits till the end of class to discreetly hand back our tests. I nervously open my two stapled sheets of paper to find a B+. I take a photo of my grade and text it to my kids. They text back congratulations and smiley faces. Maybe I could survive this class after all.

I look at my paper again and notice that María has not used the customary red ink to convey my grade but rather, violet. Other tests were graded in blue ink. Later I learn that this isn’t any accident either.

“Studies have shown that students think they’ve been evaluated more harshly when their work is covered in red ink compared with more neutral colors,” María explains.

I begin to feel more comfortable in class and get used to seeing my classmates in their Harvard hoodies and assorted athletic garb. We have a woman rower, a woman basketball player, and a male hockey player. Meeting four days a week and enduring this severe winter bring us together. I start to feel like one of them…until I go to the men’s room after class and look in the mirror.

I learn another important thing. Peer pressure works on me. When I have to participate in class, have to take tests, have to write papers, have to do presentations with a partner who needs a good grade, I feel a need to perform.

In contrast, when I was managing my own language learning, as I was for the past five years, what I was missing most was accountability. Yes, I went through many audio programs and computer programs and apps and even had personal tutors. But still, when I was running the show, my pace was slow. Now, with this classroom setting, I am making the fastest progress I’ve ever made. It’s hard but it feels good.

No pain, minimal gain

When it comes to physical exercise, I have enough discipline to do it myself. I don’t need classes or an exercise boot camp. But when it comes to language learning, I apparently do need a kick in my butt by people I’ve made a commitment to. I need demanding coaches to keep me accountable, to help me push through the painful struggle that language learning often is.

Many parts of the learning are delightful, fun and fast, but other parts are a struggle and you must embrace it — permit the pain of searching for words, of not being able to express what you wish. For this is just when we learn the most, right? And how many things truly worthwhile come without a struggle?

“With exercise, your body releases endorphins and you get the immediate reward of feeling better,” Marie Crowley tells me. She is one of the people I met at the language technology conference and the founder of a company called Language Lifestylist. It provides intermediate users like me with a personal coach who works with you to weave your language goals into your real life. “Even after a short period of consistent exercise, you feel more fit, your muscles tone up, and maybe coupled with a healthy diet you a little lose weight. Seeing these results is encouraging and motivates you to keep going.

“With language learning, the result is more subtle and not as easy to identify,” she says. “There may be days when you feel like you’re not making progress at all, when really, you are. Having a personal coach to provide corrective feedback not only helps people see the progress they are making, it helps them integrate the best language learning practices into their daily lives so that they can achieve their goals over time.”

I’m not sure any technology, no matter how useful for language learning, can provide what a great coach or teacher can. Perhaps it’s because we’re in the habit of being accountable to people, not to software and books.

Does that qualify as culture?

The midpoint in our semester arrives and a classmate asks if I will be his partner for the oral presentation. He has no idea how grateful I am. I thought María might have to assign someone to take me on as a charity case.

Josh Robinson is a freshman with a ready smile and a haircut the Marines would be okay with. Over coffee, I ask him about his background. “I went to six different high schools between Virginia, Arkansas, and Texas,” he tells me. “My parents divorced and I lived with my aunt and uncle, both of whom were in the Army at the time.”

“Well,” I say, “you must have done something right to get into Harvard.”

“I guess Harvard felt sorry for me,” says Josh. “I really think I crushed the interview, though, and left feeling like I’d had more of a friendly conversation than anything. Plus I did pretty well on the tests.” (Later I learn that he, like most students here, had nearly perfect test scores.)

Josh tells me that his father is a truck driver and is 38 years old. His mother has never been on an airplane. Josh is half black and half white, “but I look Dominican or Puerto Rican, which is why I feel so compelled to learn the language and the culture. So many assume that I’m of Latino descent, I figure I should at the very least be connected.” He also tells me, with a soft smile, that he has a Spanish-speaking girlfriend, a fellow freshman here at Harvard.

Josh is taking French at the same time, I learn, and is considering majoring in Romance languages and literature. He figures it might help his ultimate goal, which is to become a rapper.

Mulling this as I sip my coffee, an idea pops into my head for our presentation. I say, “Why don’t we do a radio interview, where I play an old disc jockey and you play a famous rapper?”

Josh likes the idea and says he can give the history of Reggaeton in his responses, which should meet the Latino culture requirement.

“What’s Reggaeton?” I ask. Josh is polite enough not to raise his eyebrows but instead explains that its origins trace back to Jamaican dance hall music, especially to a guy named Shabba Ranks. Josh says he’ll send me a few links to get me started. We say goodbye and I realize my education is about to take an unexpected turn.

Later that evening in my Cambridge apartment, I plug headphones into my computer and listen to YouTube videos from Shabba Ranks and then Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, and J Alvarez.

I hate the stuff.

But I share the links with my sons with a note: “Hey, check this out. Don’t you guys love this?”

By now my sons wonder what the hell has happened to Dad at Harvard. Is this the same father who played John Phillips Sousa marches in his Volvo station wagon when he took them to school? The same dad who had them sit down and pay attention to the brass section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as they played Mahler’s Fifth?

The date arrives when Josh and I have to meet María during office hours and make our case that our radio skit should qualify as a report about Latin American culture. Our Spanish must have been pretty horrible because she twice makes us try other words. Finally she says, “But it’s supposed to be about Latin American culture, like poetry or art.”

“Reggaeton is important music out of Latin America today — important for my generation,” says Josh. I nod like a lunatic and say something like, “Yes! It’s important for the young generation of today,” as if I have any idea. María shrugs and gives her assent.

Josh and I do high-fives in the hall. Then we sign up for one of the last time slots to buy ourselves some time.

Radio day

I learn from speaking to undergraduates that language classes are generally liked and respected. “Language classes have a reputation of being fairly well taught.” says Laya Anasu, a senior who has taken French at Harvard. “The classes are small and students get a lot out of them, partly because they are four days a week.” Among my classmates, I never hear complaints about the amount of the work. They seem to be there because they want to advance.

The author in training for a Mexellent oral presentation

The date finally arrives for our oral presentation. To help our act, I order some Mexican T-shirts for us. Josh’s is black with a giant label that reads “Hecho en Mexico” (Made in Mexico); mine is blue with one Spanglish word printed in white, which I hope the class finds funny: “Mexellent.”

Josh and I have practiced and have our script written out on my computer, along with the music clips I am to play to illustrate Josh’s story of Reggaeton, while on his own computer he clicks through his slides describing the music’s history. I launch in with “Sí, son las doce, Medianoche, Soy Doc y Bienvenidos, chicos, a nuestro programa: El Nuevo Grito aquí en X-E-T-R-A, Tijuana, México.” (Yes, it’s twelve, midnight, I’m Doc and welcome, guys, to our program: The New Scream at XETRA, Tijuana, Mexico.)

Our classmates seem to be enjoying the show. I’m not sure about María, but I’m too busy trying to speak my lines and hit the right buttons on my computer. Josh is doing his rapero thing with a natural flare.

All of a sudden, I realize to my horror that I have jumped ahead and skipped a whole section of dialog. But Josh rolls with it like a pro, and we finish on time and to much applause from our classmates. I’m not sure what María thinks of it all; we’ll have to wait till we get our grade to find out.

What they don’t teach students

As our course enters its final week, I’m feeling good about the progress I’ve made, earned from hard study in private and uncomfortable struggle in public. I can tell spirits are high in the class, too. But I also know, from my reading and interviews, that most college students don’t continue studying a language past one or two classes. The language requirement at Harvard, like most other colleges, is only one year or the equivalent — hardly enough to become conversational, let alone fluent. And according to the Modern Language Association, college language enrollments continue on a downward slope, to what may be historic lows.

None of this reality is discussed in my Spanish class, nor are the real barriers that face college language students.

A fundamental barrier is the time it actually takes to become proficient in a second language. It takes from three to five thousand hours to become conversational in a language — far exceeding the time students could rack up even if they took language every semester for four years. And unless students are majoring and minoring in a language, they don’t have the room in their schedules for even those insufficient hours.

Going abroad for an immersion experience can help — the longer the better. But most schools, including Harvard, don’t particularly encourage study abroad. The percentage of students who study abroad at Harvard is below the national average, which itself is only 10 percent. Most study abroad is of a short duration, usually a semester or less.

One of the chief reasons that student counselors don’t push study abroad is that students often have trouble fitting in electives of any kind because of the heavy load of required courses. What’s more, classes in universities overseas often are not recognized by their American schools in terms of course credits. For students aiming for professional or graduate schools, they feel compelled to stay on campus to jump through the many hoops the curriculum demands.

Something more subtle is also at work, and that is a widespread belief among American college faculty and staff that the U.S. offers, on average, the best college education in the world — why else would so many international students want to come here? Why would an American student sacrifice a semester at home to get something inferior overseas? This is a generalization, of course, and there are plenty of overseas study programs that college counselors recommend. Nevertheless, the fact that fewer than 10 percent of college students study abroad is testimony to America’s attitudes.

The final exam (and lunch)

The final exam comes, and once again the chairs are aligned in tight rows. I struggle more than usual and am among the last students left sitting when our time is up.

Later that final week, we finish up our Español en la calle presentations. Mine isn’t particularly wonderful, especially when two of my fellow students have to come up and help me with my computer, but I make it through.

Spirits are high and María, glowing with her soft, friendly manner that we have grown accustomed to, encourages us all to continue our Spanish and move up to Spanish 30, the next language class in line.

I do want to continue next semester, but with all my travel commitments I know I cannot. I tell myself I’ll continue making progress by other means. I imagine most students in my class have similar conflicts and make similar promises (“I’ll see you in September”).

But some students will continue and earn a Citation in language. Adriana explained to me that once the language department created that Citation, enrollments went up. “Harvard students like to achieve things,” she told me. “To earn a Citation, they have to take four classes beyond the first year. We’ve had this Citation for 10 or 12 years now, and it has been an enormous success..”

Later, home alone, I go online to check to see if my final grades are in. They are. I see that I got a B on my final exam and that my final grade is a B+. I’m delighted. But then I see that one last grade is still outstanding — class participation. I send an email to María to ask when those will come in. She replies within minutes that she has just finished adding those grades, and “Espero que continúes con el español, has progresado mucho. Tu nota final es una A-.”

I let out a loud hoot and get up from my chair to literally jump for joy. I hurt myself coming down and so, nonsensically, jump up again a bit more carefully. Of course, I immediately forward her email to my long-suffering sons.

After the summer, I catch up with my Reggaeton partner, Josh, over lunch outside at Au Bon Pain. Fall is already in the air and we’re wearing jackets. He looks a bit older somehow and tells me he has broken up with his Latina girlfriend, but otherwise he had a great summer, mostly doing farm work with a buddy of his to earn some money.

He is taking Spanish still, having jumped three levels to a full-blown Spanish literature class. He’s continuing his French, too, and has declared his concentration (what Harvard calls a major) in Romance languages. “Pops had some reservation about this choice,” Josh tells me, referring to his father, “but I said to him, ‘Haven’t most of my big decisions worked out pretty well so far?’”

I bet it does work out well for Josh, and not just with his language skills. I bet he becomes just the kind of transcultural agent the head of the Spanish studies, Adriana Gutiérrez, aspires to help create.

Maybe when Josh becomes a famous rapper, I can point to him up on stage and brag to the person next to me, “He was my Spanish partner.”