Earlier this fall, I found myself in the middle of a huge textile factory and museum in the Andes Mountains of northern Ecuador, my husband’s home country and a country where I lived for a year. We were taking a day trip with friends by train along a dramatic route that would pass through countryside, mountainous tunnels, and then down into lush fields at lower elevations, and this stop was early on our trip. We were visiting the Fábrica Imbabura, an immense factory covering more than two acres that had recently been renovated into a museum. (You can get a sense of the site in this video.)
As we walked into the factory, I was awestruck by the size of the building and long rows of old machinery. I felt the strange sensation of having been transported to another time and place, as well as a tingle of recognition as I thought of the photos I had seen of girls working at textile factories in New York. It felt as though I had entered a world I had only seen in photographs or read about in novels, although it happened to be just north of the Equator. I also was excited by the prospect of a museum tour, one of my favorite activities.
We met our guide and began a tour that I soon realized would only be a brief walkthrough. There wouldn’t be time for any questions or for reading the signs, which were bilingual. Our small group moved closer to the tour guide and I listened as attentively as I could to the tour, confident that by staying at the front of the group and listening carefully, my fluent Spanish would carry me through the tour.
It started off well. I learned that the factory had been built by two brothers from Spain during the Industrial Revolution who chose the site because of its proximity to the railway line. They imported machines from England (which maybe explained why images of the BBC’s North and South were running through my mind) and were known for their high-quality fabrics, remaining in operation until the 1980s. Who had worked here, I wondered? What had the conditions been like? What were the differences between what men and women did on the factory floor, if any?
In black and white photos, serious and tired Ecuadorian faces under newsboy caps stared back from the midst of a busy and dusty factory floor and I tried to conjure up their presence as I looked around the building. (Perhaps I needn’t have tried so hard since the guide later said that the factory was haunted.)
I was lost in thought when I soon realized I had tuned out the guide’s tour and made an effort to catch up with his narration, but it was too late. I had missed an important transition, and he was now talking about the actual production of the fabric and operation of the machinery. The descriptions were too technical for me to understand and full of words I didn’t know. Even as I caught words I recognized here and there, like “workers” and “cloth”, I didn’t have enough of a toehold to jump back in.
My attention began to wander again, and I soon left the group to start taking photographs. I was still mesmerized by the machines, even though my hopes for learning much more about the factory itself were fading. I heard the group laugh a few times and looked over to try to catch the joke, but to no avail. I noticed more bilingual signs and began to read the descriptions to glean a little more information on my own, comparing the descriptions to see if that would prove more fruitful than listening to the guide’s tour. But even the signs were too technical to understand in Spanish. One word in particular jumped out at me when I read the translation in English – “bobbin.” It was central to the operation being described, and without knowing its translation, I wouldn’t have had any chance to understand the process described in Spanish. “Thread” was a word I knew, but “bobbin” wasn’t. I finally gave up and decided to take as many photos as I could before we left.
Later that day, I reflected back on my experience from the point of view of a language learner and particularly what I felt throughout my visit to the museum. At the beginning, I was so excited and motivated to learn as much as I could about something connected to a prior interest of mine – the Industrial Revolution. Since I had taken tours in Spanish before, I also felt confident that I could hold my own and follow the tour with the same engagement and enjoyment that I usually feel on museum tours. Yet as my ability to comprehend what was being said diminished, so did my attention – as well as my positive feelings about the experience. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t understand what was happening, and I also felt frustrated that there wasn’t enough time to access what I knew would have helped me understand more – the signs in English, or a slower walk-through with my husband and our friends.
I thought about how students who can’t yet express themselves in a new language have reservoirs of interest, motivation, prior knowledge, and intelligence that aren’t tapped when they feel frustrated or ignored. I also thought about how lucky I was that there wasn’t a test on all we had learned – and if there had been, how I would have preferred to put together a visual arts project with my photos! The whole excursion made me think again about the challenge students must meet to learn content and language at the same time and, most importantly, how they feel throughout that process – particularly with the pressure of demonstrating what they have learned in a different language on a test.
I also thought about all of the strategies that would have made the visit feel more successful to me: connecting to and building upon my background knowledge, previewing academic and technical vocabulary, accessing the same information in a variety of ways, connecting with a topic in a personal way, and taking a little extra time when needed.
I learned that evening that my mother-in-law had bought fabric from the factory to have dresses made as a young woman. The quality was excellent, she said. My interest again piqued, I set my frustrations aside and decided that one day, should we have the opportunity, my husband and I would return to the factory and take our time to go through it together, room by room. Until then, I would just have to enjoy my photos and do a little more research on my own in order to prepare for our next visit to la Fábrica Imbabura.
Yet I was also reminded that in my case, the stakes were very low. For English language learners, the stakes couldn’t be higher. When students feel supported and confident, it makes all the difference in how willing they are to take risks and try new challenges that will take them farther in the future – a future in which they have the opportunity to succeed.