Really Teaching Languages

Following is the seventh in a series by participants in the Winter 2022 Open Pedagogy Fellowship (which will be known, going forward, as the Open Knowledge Fellowship), coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY. 

Portrait of author Luis Escamillia FriasLuis Escamilla Frias is getting his Ph.D. in Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures at The Graduate Center. He also serves as adjunct lecturer of Spanish and Portuguese at Brooklyn College and College of Staten Island. He has taught at Manhattan College as well. As a scholar, his main interests are about ways of resistance by brown youth, women and indigenous populations over Mexico’s neoliberal era. As a creator, his works revolve around masculinities, parenthood, Latin America and literary genres.



Learning a new language implies multiple things ranging from excitement to frustration. Teaching languages, I am afraid, implies those feelings too. Let me explain.

As a graduate teaching fellow (the label for those graduate students at the GC who teach courses at one of the CUNY colleges), I have had the chance to teach both Spanish and Portuguese at CUNY’s Brooklyn College and CSI. Seen in perspective, it has been a fascinating experience that has allowed me to reflect in depth on various characteristics and subtleties of Spanish and Portuguese I had never considered before. If I were asked to describe some of those features, I would answer that not only structure but, what is more, the cultural background is part of a language, central to fluency. That is to say, you do not need to think about the underlying metaphors, jokes and history that are set into motion every time you use your language, every time you speak. You simply talk, taking these elements for granted. 

I had realized this to some extent before moving from Mexico to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures. But it was once I was here in person that I had to think about that, day after day, when teaching Spanish and Portuguese. I realized that it is virtually impossible to use any language without recalling a lot of the cultural aspects which are so embedded into the fabric of that language.

That is why teaching the languages that I love was a tough task, when using the textbooks provided by the colleges where I teach. Those textbooks are outmoded, to say the least. The examples, contexts, and small talk provided for students to practice with are anything but interested in the cultural understandings and conflicts that imbue even the simplest things. They usually depict the language as a limpid structure of signs that must simply be learned and practiced to be understood, and for learning to be achieved. In my worldview, that is wrong: language is a battlefield of persons, interests, political groups, historic episodes, artistic influences…  I mean, indigenous communities, feminist movements, foreign people, to mention only a few, know that gaining the recognition they deserve in a patriarchal-dominated, every-day, standardized language is a permanent struggle against ossified ideas such as sexism, bigotry, discrimination and so on. That is why using those textbooks to teach and learn a language may turn out to be a frustrating experience.

Besides, those textbooks are quite expensive. Which is exactly the opposite of what learning a language in a public university should be.

I think anyone that has reached this point of this reading suspects what I mean. This fellowship is eye-opening in providing knowledge about resources, webpages, platforms that are out there—some far from the academic establishment—for free. In my personal case, those resources gave me the confidence I needed to think that the ideas I had devised over the past few years teaching languages might be applied to tailor a course that matched my academic interests.

During this fellowship I learned skills ranging from creating a webpage on the CUNY Academic Commons, to researching on so many archival web pages around the world, to taking into account our students’ backgrounds when designing our courses. And I obviously learned how and where to search for open educational resources for me to employ in my own courses.

At the end of this excellent six-week experience, I was able to build up a course to teach Portuguese at Brooklyn College by using exclusively free materials and resources. And I could build it up according to my academic, ethical and political commitments. I could incorporate the tales, movies and social discussions that, I think, may help students to better understand some cultural aspects deeply embedded in Brazilian culture and in Portuguese language.

I just recently began my Portuguese course, and on the first day of classes I asked my students whether the fact that the course uses only open educational resources had pushed them to enroll in it. Most of them said, Yes. As I said, learning a new language in a public university should not be a privilege but a chance that anyone interested should simply have. This Yes-answer confirmed that for me.

I am more than sure that the Open Pedagogy Workshop is helpful in making learning more universal at the Graduate Center and at colleges where graduate teaching fellows teach, and improving the courses’ content so that they can align with our interests—both as doctoral students, and as professors in formation.


About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.