On May 12, an hour before a group of Mexican students arrived at Ajijic’s Wilkes Center to begin the exercise “Difficult Journey,” 20 volunteers gathered for an orientation, led by lakeside resident Phil Rylett.
Having experienced the “Difficult Trip” – a similar exercise at a weeklong Spanish-language intensive at Lake Tahoe Community College in California – Rylett addressed the eager volunteers on how he envisioned the event would play out.
“The most important thing you can do is to use zero Spanish,” Rylett stressed to the volunteers. “Although it’s tempting to want to help a student who’s struggling to communicate, the skill we bring to the table is not our knowledge of Spanish. That only serves as an impediment. We need to pretend not to know their native language. Instead, we use our ability to simplify our English to a level they can understand. This is not easy and requires paying attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues.”
After their own brief orientation, the students, hailing from Ajijic’s ES1L program, embarked on the simulated journey. With mock passports in hand, they “traveled” from Mexico, across the U.S. border, to New York – facing challenges along the way.
When Rylett attended the yearly Lake Tahoe event on two separate occasions, he made sure to sign up for the “Difficult Trip,” which occurred at the tail end of the intensive. The exercise gives students learning Spanish the opportunity to “travel” from the U.S. border to Patzcuaro, all the while remaining at the college campus plaza. They visit realistic, travel-oriented situations while conversing with native Spanish speakers, stopping at stations such as customs, immigration, a bus station and a restaurant.
“My experience was so positive that I decided to reproduce it in Ajijic,” says Rylett. Using the college’s same principles of second-language acquisition, he changed the name to “Difficult Journey” and geared it toward students learning English.
Rylett, who hosts a weekly Spanish dialogue practice at the Lake Chapala Society, discovered the teachings of education theorist Tracy Terrell and linguist Stephen Krashen regarding the process by which people learn a second language. Terrell and Krashen wrote “The Natural Approach,” a comprehension-based language learning methodology which emphasizes the idea of exposure and the lowering of affective or emotional barriers to learning.
“The theory behind the ‘Difficult Journey’ is that we don’t focus on teaching the second language at all,” says Rylett. “Instead, we focus on students achieving the various tasks. The only way to do that is to communicate solely in the second language. The skill that we, as volunteers, bring to the table is to simplify the target language until it can be understood by the students.”
The May 12 event marked the third time that Rylett has hosted the “Difficult Journey.” His first included students from a school in Guadalajara; the second visiting students from Veracruz.
“It’s not unusual for students learning English to want to visit Ajijic, being that there’s such a rich concentration of English speakers to practice with,” he says.
A key point that Rylett took away from his Lake Tahoe experience was that the exercise should be relaxed.
“I create this ‘light’ mood,” he says, “with the presence of a ‘cop’ (played my myself), who acts as a wandering clown, making sure everything runs smoothly and no one takes themselves too seriously. I also added the activity of ‘arresting’ students for nonsense offenses, such as looking too serious, too suspicious, or wearing brightly colored shoes, just to keep it light and fun. Of course, this act then has to be followed by a visit to a lawyer who works with them on their case before the case is taken to the judge.”
The “journey” wouldn’t be difficult without a few obstacles. The students face their share of challenges, such as being handed passports of a person of the opposite sex. Their mission is to solve each problem at the various stations, where they interact with volunteers who have taken on such roles as customs agent, immigration agent, bank teller, travel agent, waiter, pharmacist, lawyer and judge. Days before the event, Rylett sends volunteers a list of guidelines that spell out each role.
“It’s essential that volunteers follow the guidelines for the exercise to be a success,” he adds.
So far, Rylett has received only positive feedback from participants, many commenting that it’s a fantastic experience.
Switching the focus, Rylett is in the process of developing a series of simulations for students learning Spanish, and a popular Spanish-language school in Ajijic has expressed an interest to host them.
“This will be a completely new and revolutionary way to improve Spanish communication skills at lakeside,” says Rylett.