people attending in a room

      (Photo – Willi1976)

      Traffic school: an opportunity for “comprehensible input” in Spanish (also in French, German, Farsi and various Asian languages).

      By Sabrina Peck

      My family calls me a language nerd. Tasks such as asking for directions, getting a haircut, or helping kids with their homework, are more fun if done in another language. So, a few years ago, after I received a traffic ticket near the City Hall in Pasadena, I looked around for a traffic school conducted in Spanish.

      There are many opportunities to speak Spanish in Los Angeles with friends and others. I can reserve flights, do social chit-chat and usually express my thoughts. I make mistakes in grammar and word choice, but native speakers compliment me nevertheless. One reason that I wanted to go to traffic school in Spanish was that I would improve my listening, speaking, and especially my vocabulary. I would hear a form of Spanish that Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California calls “comprehensible input.”  This means language that is relevant, interesting, understandable but a little above one’s level. I also wanted to learn more about the traffic laws in California. And of course, whatever the teachers said, it would sound better in Spanish.

      After seven calls, I found a nearby traffic school with an all-day Saturday class. Preparing for the instruction, I yellow-highlighted new vocabulary in the Department of Motor Vehicles/Manual del Automovilista de California. Some of the words were “repentinamente” (suddenly), “resbalosa” (slippery), “transporte colectivo” (carpool), and the term I would need if asked to explain my presence in the class, “vuelta illegal en U” (illegal U-turn).

      The classroom was full. Keeping a low profile, I sat next to the wall, vowing not to speak. Our morning teacher, Mr. A, showed us a video that compared institutions in the U.S. (California) and Mexico: customs, immigration, border patrol, police, and department of motor vehicles. He contrasted the U.S. legal system, based on the English system: “You are innocent until proven guilty” with Mexico’s Spanish-based system “You are assumed guilty until proven innocent.”  I understood everything except for when Mr. A. told some jokes, about his mother-in-law, and lowered his voice at the punch line. As he contrasted the U.S. and Mexico, he started many sentences with, “En NUESTRO país,” (in OUR country) as he proceeded to explain many familiar matters. I came to realize that “NUESTRO” referred to all of us in the United States, wherever we might come from, and I had a warm feeling about being part of this country, to which people came from many countries, and in which we all grew to form a team. Then, after a few more examples, Mr. A. would emphatically say, “PERO AQUI…” (BUT HERE…) I realized that “NUESTRO país” had referred to Mexico. Suddenly I felt like an outsider!

      The instruction was thorough and varied. Both teachers used the whiteboard and colored markers to diagram traffic situations. How to stop at a stop sign, the dangers of running a red light, the penalties for various infractions were all covered. Sometimes they polled the whole class on a question (“What is the speed limit on this block in front of the traffic school?”) and then answered it themselves. Mr. B. (the afternoon teacher) made jokes about Mr. A’s mother-in-law. I learned nicknames for people who live in Mexico City, and prejudices that other Mexicans have about them. Mr. B. lectured on the dangers of drinking and driving, but showed no gory videos. He explained the links between machismo, feeling sexually attractive, and driving under the influence. The teachers were entertaining and skillful.

      My day in traffic school was everything I had wanted. I discharged my legal obligation and I had learned Spanish vocabulary and information about Mexican culture. I didn’t have the same interpretation of “nuestro país” as my companions, but others accepted me as a member of the class.

      In many U.S. cities there are numerous real-world opportunities to improve one’s knowledge of other languages and cultures. In or near the San Gabriel Valley, traffic schools are available in Spanish, French, German, Farsi and various Asian languages. One can also carry out ordinary activities such as calling Macy’s with a complaint, watching the news, or going to mass in Spanish or another language. Thus, you can arrange to receive comprehensible input in the language of your choice, and improve your language proficiency without a teacher.

      In the process, you learn about culture as well as language. You feel like an outsider. The people that you meet may question you with curiosity and affection, yet may accept you. Your little world (the familiar regions of your city) expands. This experience recalls the Randy Newman song “We love LA.”  It recalls Rodney King’s plea that we all “get along.” I don’t want another ticket, but I’d go to that traffic school again to pick up some driving tips, and to beef up my Spanish. I’d go also to encounter the width, breadth and depth of our country, nuestro pais.

      Sabrina Peck, Ph.D., is Professor Emerita of Applied Linguistics, Cal State Northridge.

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      1. Veronica Baker says:

        I would never have thought to do that, but what an interesting and informative way to brush up on one’s language abilities!

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