I have finally lived in Las Vegas long enough to qualify for resident status at the university. I wanted that because I wanted to finish my Spanish major from forty years ago. I have taken Spanish online, and I’ve also taken some classes at those places designed for tourists, and none of them were adequate. I wanted the accountability of a professor and a grade, as well as contact with other students of all ages.

UNLV is a young school, founded in 1957, and it doesn’t have a lot of the benefits I’m used to from the University of Wisconsin. The union, for example, closes in the evenings, particularly on weekends. Some of the departments aren’t fully accredited yet, and there’s a sense of striving that’s missing from the old established university.

But, wow, has a lot changed in the teaching of languages.

The reason I dropped my Spanish major in 1981 is pretty simple: I was married and extremely poor. It was all my then-husband and I could do to scrape together tuition. By then, we were talking about student loans, which I finally had to take in my final year. I didn’t want to go into debt to finish, but I had no choice.

To complete my Spanish degree, I had to spend at least one semester in Spain. I talked to my advisor and my favorite professor, hoping to get that requirement waived, but they said it wasn’t possible. The only way to learn a language, they said, was to immerse yourself in it.

Since then, I have traveled quite a bit, and yep, that’s true. My spoken French is better than my spoken Spanish, even though I can read Spanish literature and can make out only bits of French prose. I can’t read German at all or speak it, but I can understand it when it’s spoken to me, because my parents spoke it in the home.

Language can be a tricky thing.

There no longer is a study-abroad requirement at the University of Wisconsin (I just checked), although it is an option. And, apparently, now it is an option that you can get financial help to achieve. I couldn’t, back in the day.

There’s no study-abroad requirement at UNLV either, not that one would be needed. The city has a huge Latinx population, and Spanish is as common as English in most places around here. A neat feature of that is that so far all of my professors are native Spanish speakers, including the Continuing Ed prof I had before I met the residency requirement.

I’ve been thinking about the differences between back then and now a lot for a variety of reasons. The first was the study-abroad requirement, which I simply could not afford. The second is the location of my current class. It’s across from the Language Lab. The Language Lab gives me the shivers. We had one at the UW, with creaky computers (1981) that had almost no memory.

We would have to complete 2 hours or so per week of Language Lab, in which we listened to some recorded Spanish and answered questions. We were supposed to answer them aloud in Spanish first, but none of us did—which is why I can read Spanish but not speak it.

This semester I’m in a conversation course, which I desperately need. Every class, the prof gives us a topic, and we talk about it in our terrible Spanish, no English allowed. We do our best.

This past week’s topic was technology, good or bad, and a lot of the young’uns in the class couldn’t imagine a life without computers or their smartphones. They admit it. They were debating whether social networks were good or bad, not technology itself.

We were having that discussion as most of us sat in the room with our laptops open and our smart phones at our side. Many of the students quickly look up the word they’re trying to say, so that they don’t break into English, and the prof doesn’t mind. He believes that encourages them to expand their vocabulary.

All of our homework is in an online program that is part of our textbook. We answer questions and get graded immediately. Sometimes we have the opportunity to try again.

There are also programs that help teach the vocabulary in the form of quizzes, memorization, and more. The more includes hearing someone pronounce the words at the press of a button. There are online references that tell a student (and anyone else) how a particular word is used in Mexican Spanish versus Colombian Spanish versus Venezuelan Spanish. It’s a great resource because a word meaning, say, “to grab,” is pretty innocent in one country and exceptionally crude in another.

When I don’t completely understand a concept, I can take online quizzes that have nothing to do with UNLV. Posted for free by other profs or as part of an online teaching tool, I can refresh my memory on the uses of the subjunctive or figure out how, exactly, to use personal pronouns. It’s been greatly beneficial.

But the tech goes beyond that. Twice this semester, we will have to use a TalkAbroad program. For thirty minutes, we have to talk with a native speaker in the country of our choice. I had my first TalkAbroad just before the tech discussion. The woman I spoke to was about my age, a teacher in Barcelona, and quite patient with me as I fumbled for the right word. I was determined not to look up anything, and I didn’t.

I was well aware when we had the discussion about tech shortly thereafter that such opportunities did not exist the first time I tried this degree. And these opportunities, as difficult as some of them are (talking for 30 minutes in a language I’m not fluent in is hard), simply were not possible in the Dark Ages of Education.

My entire educational experience at UNLV has been a technological marvel, because I had 2.5 Spanish classes during the pandemic. (The .5 was the semester cut short in March of 2020.) We were able to continue learning because of the tech rather than having an eighteen-month break while the campus was shut down.

So . . . technology good or bad? My science fiction writer answer is the same as it’s always been. Technology is a tool, and tools are as good as the person using them.

But my non-traditional returning adult student answer? Oh, wow. I love this new way to learn a language, made possible by tech. I can speak well enough now that I can give directions to people who can’t figure out how to park near my building or intercede when someone is having a minor problem communicating with a non-Spanish speaker. Every now and then, I can tell someone young and cruel that the old woman in the elevator actually understood what they said about her.

That’s quite satisfying—and hadn’t been possible forty years ago, despite all of my book learning.

Some people told me when I went back to school that I wouldn’t be able to relate to the kids I was in class with. I’m finding them to be easy to relate to, although at times I do feel old and jaded in comparison. But I also find them to be a great resource for the impact technological change is having on all of us.

I never try to tell them how lucky they are because they can do all this work online or through programs that couldn’t even be imagined forty years ago. What would they care?

The sf writer in me wonders, though, what their education will be like in forty years if they decide to go back to school, maybe to finish their Spanish degree (at least 2 have dropped out since I started the program) or to pursue a different aspect of their education.

The technological changes in the education realm have been amazing. (Including a way to upload papers that automatically checks them for plagiarism.) Sometimes I feel like my sf imagination isn’t up to the task of predicting the near-future for these kids.

And then I settle in, learning a language I’ve always wanted to immerse myself in, because technology has made it simpler for me to do so. Which pleases me more than I can say.