Learning with language barriers: that one time when I cried in my History of Africa class

A few weeks ago, I was supposed to give a twenty-minute presentation about slavery in my Historia de Africa class at the Universidad de Costa Rica. Eventually all forty of my classmates and I would have to present, but a combination of bad luck and my timidity left me going first.

Before my professor called me to give my presentation I was a little disorganized. Translating my notes from 10 English sources into Spanish took about 6 hours longer than I had anticipated, I walked out of my house to find the bus I was supposed to take driving away, and I’d underestimated the amount of time it would take to for me to print my presentation at the Grupo de Kansas office and get to class.

As a result, I hadn’t slept the night before and I had barely reviewed my presentation.

But I was a procrastinating-last-minute-disorganized-kind of student at home, and I was always fine. Plus speaking in public didn’t bother me, in fact I actually liked giving presentations.

I knew my topic. I’d made a power-point. I’d put on a dress. I was ready.

Or at least I would have been in the US.

But as soon as I stood up in front of the classroom, I realized that I wasn’t giving a presentation in the US—that I wasn’t even giving a presentation in English.

I felt an immediate need to justify myself. To remind my classmates that I wasn’t from here, and that Spanish was my second language—that my thoughts came in the form of the clunky English words I had been feeding my vocabulary with for all of these years, and therefore I still needed to translate almost everything.

I told them I was from the States and that if they didn’t understand me they should tell me and I could try to explain it a different way.

Or at least that’s what I think I said.

I started reading from my notes and immediately realized that I should have practiced more. The vocabulary was slippery, and unfamiliar words like kidnap and exponentially and survival tripped over my tongue as they spilled out of my mouth.

After my first page of notes—which I had begun to treat like a carefully worded speech that couldn’t afford even a moment of my inattention—my professor told me to slow down. After two more sentences she told me to stop reading from them.

Don’t look at your paper she said. Just explain to us the most important points.

Flustered and convinced I had already completely ruined my presentation, I folded the papers I was holding in front of me and stared up at my classmates. I tried to continue from where I had left off.

I wanted to say “due to European interference in the trade there was a rise in illegal kidnapping.”

Debido a la interferencia europea en el comercio de esclavos habia un…

But I couldn’t remember how to say “rise.” I searched for another word that meant the same thing, “increase”? But I couldn’t remember how to say that either. Or could I? was it aumento? I wasn’t sure. I said it anyway.

But then I couldn’t remember what the word for kidnapping was. It was in my notes somewhere but I felt like I was no longer allowed to look at those. I tried to work my way around the word by just explaining what it was.

The stealing of people by other people, I said.

I was sure none of what I was saying was making any sense.

As I was standing in front of the classroom, struggling to find my words, the ever-present language barrier—which usually hung around me like a transparent fog—suddenly made it-self opaque. As if it was a physical thing, it barricaded what I knew from turning into what I said.


It was a thick, tall wall composed of sturdy, red bricks. As my presentation continued, I beat my fists against it until my hands bled. Until, finally after an excruciating 6 more minutes (still 11 minutes short of the length my presentation was supposed to be), my professor interrupted me again and told me I could be finished. I ended my presentation with saying and, searching for yet another word I couldn’t remember.

As the class applauded me with sympathetic eyes, the weight of every word I couldn’t remember, verb I’d conjugated incorrectly, and information I had forgotten to include rushed out of me like a waterfall—and I started to cry.

The teacher took over and started to explain everything that I had forgotten (and I had forgotten a lot), as I just stood there, crying. My first instinct was to run into the hallway, but that didn’t seem appropriate and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to answer questions. So I stayed standing there—trying to push tears back into my eyes and wiping my nose on the sleeve of my jean jacket—until finally I realized that I wouldn’t be able to answer a question even if someone asked and I might as well just go sit down. I might as well just go sit down and wait for myself to stop crying.

But I couldn’t. I kept on crying—about everything and nothing. I was crying because I hadn’t slept the night before. I was crying because I had translated all those notes for nothing. I was crying because I wasn’t able to speak in Spanish when I should have been able to.

One of my KU friends, who has the class with me, turned to me and said, “Dude, seriously it’s fine. Presentations are hard.”

But that’s the thing, presentations weren’t hard for me—or, rather, presentations didn’t used to be hard for me. In fact, almost nothing about school used to be hard for me.

But, now, everything from participating in class to writing papers feels impossible.

In many ways I feel like I’m an athlete who has gotten hurt and now is undergoing physical therapy. I feel like an injured runner, struggling to walk, but being able to remember what it is like to run 5 miles.

It feels almost like I am relearning how to learn. I’m realizing can’t be the student I used to be and get the same results—where I used to be able to get away with cramming for tests and improvising presentations, I can’t anymore.

However, even aside from the language barrier, school is different here. Classes are longer, group work is more prevalent, and tests are fewer. But even more so, things are just more informal: frequently students will call out to the professor with out raising their hands and things like my Africa presentation often don’t have rubrics or set structures.

So, as I was crying at my desk—debating the pros and cons of getting up to cry in the bathroom—I couldn’t help but thinking that if I was in the states, this would not have happened. If I were in the States the teacher wouldn’t have interrupted me and the presentation would have had a rubric. If I were in the states I would have been able to improvise and not had any problems.

But if I were in the states I also wouldn’t have been passed a note from a stranger that said:
“Relax woman. Your exposition was VERY GOOD.
– Rodrigo”
And if I were in the states, a random classmate wouldn’t have bought me a bottle of water and placed it on my desk. And if I were in the states I wouldn’t have had 3 people approach me throughout the week and ask if I was that girl who cried in their History of Africa class and they were so sorry about what happened and what bad luck that I had to go first.

When it comes down to it, if I was in the States things would have been more structured, but also less heartfelt. Because that is just what the Costa Rica is. Costa Rica is presentations where teachers interrupt you and class discussions where students interrupt each other without raising their hands.

But it’s also hospitality to the point of discomfort and people working for the benefit of the group instead of the individual. It’s hating when others are embarrassed and wanting to do almost anything to make sure they feel comfortable. It’s one of my classmates bringing a two-month-old puppy to class with her and nobody acting like it was weird.

It’s caring that someone is crying after their presentation and wanting to make them feel better.