La Michoacana market, a Hispanic Market on east 7th street in Austin, TX, is just a block away from my work but feels a world away from the Austin I typically experience. Garish, multi-colored lettering on the outside describes food products in Spanish. The clientele is predominantly Hispanic, particularly during the lunch hour, when lines of Hispanic migrant construction workers await Mexican food and aguas frescas from the kitchen that dominates one half of the store. That afternoon, I walked sheepishly around the store with my clipboard (generally to feign professionalism), before I finally began a pained conversation with the cash register attendant in Spanish. Shortly, I fell into a broken Spanish and English mix.
Over the course of a few weeks, our team of AC4D alumni conducted street and subject matter expert interviews to understand Hispanic language access issues in Austin – What are the cultural and economic impacts of not being able to speak English? And what are the barriers to learning and practicing English? From our research, we aimed to use design to generate ideas that could be used to both support language acquisition and improve a sense of shared identity in Austin, which more often than not feels like 4 or more cities co-habiting than it does one unified city.
Conducting the research, particularly via street interviews, wasn’t easy. Our team’s rather low level of Spanish expertise gave us a rather ironic window into what many ESL students must face in their day to day experience in Austin. While I speak decent Spanish after college study abroad experiences in Central and South America, that fluidity was built up almost (gasp) 8 years ago. Our team of designers, including Chuck Hildebrand, Bhavini Patel, and Melissa Chapman, all have varied levels of non-existent to passable Spanish skills.
With that said, I will not trade the often priceless experiences that followed those awkward introductions, where we gained some very real insight into the drivers and challenges facing migrants in our city. Just like you and me, they’re trying to make life work – yet they might already have families and multiple jobs that can, and do, get in the way of learning something new. I wanted to thank each member of our team, as well as the experts and individuals who gave their time to support the effort.
A taste of highlights from our Research
There are challenging logistical barriers for Hispanic migrants trying to learn English.
Hispanic migrants often live far from their workplaces and work multiple jobs with fluid schedules. Poorer migrants, and particularly undocumented migrants likely do not own a car – and therefore getting to and from any particular ESL location requires time and energy that only the most driven of learners can give.
The best course content includes elected, and not solely directed, information.
Learners should have a say in the content that they learn. Speakers may want to focus on basic interactions that support daily living, such as health, school, workplace transportation, and other economic transactions. But they equally may want to learn more specific nuance to the language they are using, including accents, pauses, pitch, and humor.
Camaraderie is an important aspect of long term learning.
For some that attend language classes, the draw for learning a language may be just as much about connecting with other people as it is about learning. The emotional connection can provide an ongoing link to attendance that a traditional classroom approach doesn’t explicitly provide. We should support interactions that increase dialogue around what it takes to survive and thrive in Austin.
In the future, we’d like to identify partners for civic design who could sponsor a formal challenge for Austin Center for Design Alumni. Please let me know your thoughts, suggestions for topic challenges, and recommendations for partners that would be interested.