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Build Community by Sharing Language Stories

Students build Spanish- and English-speaking skills—and intercultural awareness—when they trade life stories in the community.


Gabriel Guillén, PhD

Assistant Professor in Content-Based Spanish, Middlebury Institute of International Studies

PhD in Spanish Linguistics, MA in Applied Linguistics, BA in Humanities

Some words have the power to transcend language barriers. It seems that eureka is one of them.

Gabriel Guillén, PhD, had a eureka moment when he was living in his native Spain. As a practitioner and researcher in applied linguistics, he knew that helping students achieve proficiency in a foreign language required more than leading exercises at the head of a class. But he did not arrive at his most successful strategy until he began working with students from the US in Spain.

“I started working with an American university on student integration,” he says, “and I ran a program for students to interact and interchange Spanish and English.” The interactions between the English-speaking students and Spanish-speaking students helped strengthen the language skills of both.

So, when Guillén joined the faculty of the Middlebury Institute—a graduate school in Monterey, California—he kept that person-to-person learning model in mind as he designed his content-based Spanish courses.

Later, as Guillén got to know the community, he and his student, April Danyluk, spotted an opportunity to bring his interactive approach to life in a new way—a way that would benefit Middlebury Institute students as well as the Spanish-speaking community nearby.

Background: Behind the “Lettuce Curtain”

The Monterey area is rich in Spanish-language culture, particularly inland from the coast where Spanish-speaking immigrants and longtime California residents work in the state’s booming agricultural industry. The more Guillén and Danyluk researched the area, the more they saw opportunity for language learners.

“There is a significant difference in terms of the economic divide,” says Guillén. “They call it the ‘Lettuce Curtain,’ which separates the agricultural towns—Salinas, Soledad, and hundreds of towns in the California valley—from the coast, which is more privileged.”

Guillén realized that partnering Middlebury students with neighbors in the agricultural regions would provide benefits to both groups, as had his decade-plus of partnering of students in Spain with those in the US. He was further informed by his own doctoral dissertation on online intercultural exchanges, and he had created one of the first social networks for language learning.

With the projects in Soledad and Salinas, his students would have the opportunity to learn and practice Spanish with Central Valley residents, while the Valley residents would have a chance to improve their English.


The result is a program titled “Team Tandem,” which currently focuses on a partnership established with the nearby Salinas Adult School. Over the course of a 15-week semester, small groups of Middlebury Institute students—most possessing intermediate Spanish skills—visit the Salinas Adult School on 10 consecutive Fridays. There, the grad students work with adult students pursuing general education diplomas, technical training, and other vocational skills. Both Guillén and the ESL instructor facilitate the session and provide feedback to students whenever necessary.

Each visit lasts two hours, with one Middlebury student and one Salinas student seated side-by-side at a table.

“The mission is working on language learning autonomy and reciprocity,” says Guillén. “And also connecting communities and increasing students’ intercultural awareness.”

“They definitely create a bond that is special and that I have not seen before in other contexts,” says Guillén.


“The mission is mutual understanding as well as working on proficiency, complexity, and accuracy in the recordings and reflections they do in the target language, in Salinas, and in the Monterey classroom.”

— Gabriel Guillén, PhD

Course: SPLA 8243 Spanish in the Community

Frequency: Four hours per week (for one semester), including two hours in Salinas interacting with ESL learners

Class size: 12 Middlebury students; 12 Salinas students

Course description: This course allows learners to develop intercultural communicative competence in Spanish. Each Friday, students will travel to Salinas and interact with English learners who are speakers of their target language. Through a sequence of tasks and projects, learners will develop language skills, creativity, critical thinking, community awareness, intercultural competence, language confidence, and learning autonomy.

See Gabriel Guillén's teaching resources for SPLA 8243 Spanish in the Community

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Lesson: Build lingual and cultural ties through story

The “Team Tandem” program follows a structure known as “Recicle,” or Reciprocal Intercultural Language Exchanges. The Recicle curriculum emphasizes, among other things, sustained human connections, cultural and community awareness, professional and personal skills, language confidence, low-tech tools (audio recordings) for noticing new and passive linguaculture (also known as languaculture) knowledge, and recycling content for long-lasting language proficiency development. During the course of their two-hour, one-on-one interactions, the Middlebury and Salinas duos have the chance to speak and listen, as well as to teach and be taught.

“Ideally we keep the same partners,” says Guillén. “What you want to do is establish a rapport so you can talk about deeper topics, and what we get from this established parlance is some regularity, as they are collecting information about each other and talking about different topics.”

Though the conversations can be free-form as the students get to know each other through the weeks, the main focus of the program involves storytelling—interviewing and recording a fluent language speaker as they share the details of their life in their native language.

Here is how Guillén helps his students build language skills, meaningful relationships, and deeper cultural understanding.

Put yourself in their shoes

In one of the first exercises, conversation becomes a language skill-builder as the duos ask each other about their lives and use that information to create fill-in-the-blank scenarios. Like “Mad Libs,” these require each student to complete the sentence presented with an appropriate word or phrase.

“For example, one student starts a sentence with ‘A good job is …,’” says Guillén. “And then they would each have to complete the sentence and talk about it. This builds not only intercultural competence but also interpersonal competence.”

Ask about life, learn about grammar

Using a smartphone app, each student makes a short audio recording of a story told by the other student as a way to learn more deeply about vocabulary and sentence patterns.

“For example, a student might talk about their favorite memory from their childhood, and so they are working in the past tense,” says Guillén. “Then they play back that recording with their partner, and whenever they encounter a new word, or a word they have encountered before but don’t know how to use, they talk about it and gain lexical breadth and lexical depth.”

Take a deep dive

In subsequent lessons, students explore the previously recorded interviews. They work to understand idioms, slang, and curious word patterns that are specific to each language.

“We’re looking for multiword expressions—two or more words that usually go together, such as peanut butter, or sentence starters, such as ‘I’m going to … ’ and the students are taking notes about the new vocabulary that they didn’t know,” says Guillén. “The goal is to learn some natural and sophisticated expressions that they may not encounter in the traditional language textbook.”

“They take notes about language use, and we talk about this in the classroom,” says Guillén. “I am learning, too, because this is not my variation of Spanish. The recordings are a good way to capture and maintain the variation in their repertoire and also their spontaneous conversation.”

Augment conversation with “notation”

As they dive into their notes and work to understand new words and phrases, Guillén encourages more person-to-person interaction instead of pure bookwork.

“I want them to look at each other to engage in meaningful conversation,” he says. “I think that’s a healthy tension between spontaneous conversation and language learning activities.”

Still, they need to write down what they are discovering, says Guillén. “I tell them, ‘You are engaged in very fruitful conversations, and if you take notes, you’ll have something useful for your reflections, something useful for our classroom discussions.”

Ask for a retelling

Once back in Monterey, Guillén often asks his English-speaking students to listen again to the stories they have captured and then retell the story in their own words—in Spanish.

“Most of the time, it is telling the same story, and impersonating the Salinas student,” says Guillén. “But this gives you the chance to work on everything. You work on empathy, you work on fluency, you work on intonation, you work on pronunciation.”

Connect all the dots after an interaction

On the Monday after each Salinas visit, Guillén requires his students to present a 300-word reflection about the Spanish language and culture they have experienced.

“I read their reflection papers, and then in the classroom we have discussions about what they’ve learned and I provide feedback,” Guillén says. “These are very insightful reflections. I’m always amazed to read what they have to say, and I also do not hesitate to challenge students’ interpretations.”


At the end of each semester, the Middlebury Institute hosts a symposium in Monterey where the Middlebury and Salinas students come together to make presentations about what they have learned, both personally and professionally, from each other.

For both groups, the intercultural journey and language exercises in Salinas always leave an indelible mark.

“There is something about being there, and the embodiment of this experience, that helps the students overcome these huge differences in the experiences that they have,” says Guillén. “Both English and Spanish partners embrace the social-good goal of this project—serving the community and connecting communities that don’t necessarily interact with one another.”