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A Smithie Learns a Language: Kathleen Hanley in Spain 1957-1958

Kathleen Hanley graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1959. Before she graduated she got the chance to live in Madrid, Spain during the 1957-1958 academic year with Smith’s renowned Junior Year Abroad Program. Throughout her time there she kept a regular correspondence with her family, which now forms a part of an extensive collection within the Smith College Archives. Thirty years after her study abroad experience, she returned to the archives as Kate Hanley Carr to reread her letters and determined that it was the year she “finally became an adult.” (Carr, 1[1]) Like many students who spend a year abroad, Kate Hanley went through a crucial development phase during her time in Spain, growing and learning through her cultural and academic experience. She discovered many cultural differences between Spain and the United States. Some of these differences, along with many stressful factors of studying abroad created some difficulties for her during her year, but these difficulties were balanced by the positive experiences she had along with the rewarding process of learning a language. This process can be very difficult to go through as well as to try to describe as you are experiencing it. In her letters, Kate pays particular attention to mapping out the ups and downs of the language learning process in detail, and how it culminates in a rewarding sense of mastery and an overall feeling of having grown.

Upon arriving in Spain, Kate knew little to no Spanish at all. Her first letter to her parents is dated August 29th, and it, along with all of her letters from at least her first month in Spain are full of details of the Spanish culture she is discovering. In them, she has the bright-eyed optimistic tone of a young traveller being exposed to a new world for the first time. It did not take long, however, for her to immerse herself in the language learning process. Immediately she began grammar and composition classes and threw herself into trying to capture the basics of the language. Soon after her arrival she observed how the process of acquiring Spanish was of losing her English.  She writes to her parents “My English is getting a bit twisted and I hope you are able to make out what I mean in this letter.” (Sep. 4) This is a typical feeling of students at the beginning of the learning process, for so much energy is spent on just being able to communicate the most basic needs in the new language that surrounds them that their brain tires and becomes easily confused when trying to transition back to their native language.

Kate didn’t have much trouble being accepted into her host family, for they welcomed her warmly and seemed to think she fit in well. She observed that her host sister was “constantly amazed that I don’t seem more American (for one thing, I don’t smoke) and she keeps insisting I look just like a girlfriend of hers. They wanted to know if I had any Spanish in my family and now I believe they are attributing my Spanish looks to the Scotch part of the family.” (Oct. 3) Living with a host family can sometimes be difficult for students who don’t get along with their families, but the only problem that presented itself for Kate was that hers spent a great deal of time away from home. In the empty house, Kate felt lonely at times and had trouble practicing her Spanish because no one was around. It also meant that when she was most homesick and most needed company, she had nobody to talk to. Instead she threw herself into her studies and seemed to be moving through the language learning process relatively quickly. On October 11th she told her parents

“If you find my English strange it’s just that I’m at a transition point where I can hardly speak any language. Every time I think of something to write I keep trying to think it out in Spanish and then I remember with relief that I can speak a language called English and that you understand it. It’s strange when you consider that I speak English with the other girls before classes but I find myself -not exactly thinking in Spanish- but, working out the sentences in Spanish when I’m alone. I don’t think of the English at all, but, not realizing what I’m doing, I’m arranging my thoughts in Spanish. It’s extremely strange, es decir, es muy raro.”

Not long after this, her composition teacher commented that “I wrote a lot better than I spoke.” (Oct. 17) This is a typical progression in the early stages of learning a language, for speaking incorporates the speed of a fluid conversation, external stimuli and the stress of understanding and imitating the native accent, whereas writing is a slower process that allows for reflection and correction.

Near the end of October, Kate found herself stuck in a strange limbo between languages, a common and exhausting state, which she described very accurately here: “It really is getting harder to write in English all the time. It takes me a while to warm up each time. …. My hand almost writes Spanish by itself now, although I am thinking in English. Frequently I sit in class, now, hearing and understanding the Spanish without translating it and yet thinking my own thoughts in English. It is like sitting suspended between the two languages… letting a passive wave of understanding flow through my brain and then arrange itself in such a way that I’m aware of the feeling that I have reached some conclusion, but I don’t express it, even to myself, in either language.” (Oct. 24)

As Kate alludes, this point in the learning process can be draining and leads quickly to a sort of “rock bottom,” which Kate hit in early November: “I’m at a point where I’m so tired of Spanish that I don’t like to read, write, or speak it, but at the same time I find it difficult to speak English. This as you can see means that I’m fairly quiet most of the time. I keep thinking in English, but evidently it must be a fairly modified English because when I try to speak it, it’s much more confused than I am.” (Nov. 9) Kate stayed at this low point for a relatively long time, through the holidays and into the beginning of the New Year. This is normal, for it usually coincides with the time in an international exchange when the student is most homesick for her family, friends and culture.

Abroad during the difficult winter months, Kate struggled with several aspects of living away from home apart from her frustration with the language and her homesickness. She was on a very tight budget, for she had had to borrow a great deal of money to be able to study in Spain. She was working as a tutor, but even so she was “living on a budget which, according to the director of the year abroad, was below the minimum required.” (Carr, 1) In addition to these issues she was worried about her grades. She was struggling in most of her classes, but she had to attain a B average in order to be able to continue receiving her scholarship to Smith.

As the year moved into spring, Kate began to emerge from this slump. Her grades improved when she became genuinely interested in furthering her knowledge. She told her parents “I’m quite hopeful that my grades will come out well enough, but anyway I’m learning a lot.” (Mar. 7) Her realization that the learning experience is more important than the overall grade is a great sign that the language acquisition process is succeeding. In that same letter, Kate had a revelation that demonstrates why people persist through the tough early stages of learning a language: “Yesterday, while reading Quijote, it occurred to me that everything was worthwhile just to be able to sit there and read such a book with the same appreciation as I could an English book.” (Mar. 7)

Kathleen Hanley returned to the United States at the end of the year feeling she had mastered a new language. Through the process she became an adult with an expanded global view and the knowledge that “there are many worlds besides mine which I’ll never be able to understand and that there are probably billions more that I don’t even know exist.” (Apr. 6) She dealt with many difficulties throughout the year, but in the end she was able to experience the rewarding experience of having challenged herself and grown from it. Her letters trace the arc of that process and her struggle to acquire fluency in Spanish and understanding of another culture.

presented by Marjorie Amon, ‘2015 Global STRIDE Fellow 2011-2012


[1] Smith College Archives, Collection “1959”, Box 2216, Folder “Hanley, Kathleen”

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