Saturday, May 01, 2010

Come on in. La agua está muy bien. (Or: Why Some of My Facebook Posts and Comments Have Been In Spanish, Lately.)

If you are one of my Facebook friends, you may have noticed lately that some of my posts are in Spanish (usually short responses, like "Me gusta!" or short comments in response to comments made to my status by friends in Spanish). The reason for this is simple: I am at long last making a really concerted effort to stretch my extremely rudimentary understanding of Spanish beyond my narrow little comfort zone.

Free clip art courtesy of

There's nothing more motivating than a deadline, and I have one looming in front of me now: one of the requirements for successful completion of a PhD is that I be able to pass a written test that "proves" that I'm fluent in a foreign language. Though I WAS fluent in German as a small child, I've lost it all now. And though I took four semesters of honors French in college, receiving all A's and B's, I am hopeless at French because I've never had an opportunity to use it.

I only had one year of Spanish in 9th grade, but when I was working on my BFA 20+ years ago there was a family from Argentina living in the same building as my daughter and I in the university family housing. The father was working on a PhD in Agriculture, and the mother had a lot of time on her hands--she was a school teacher in Argentina, but spoke English as poorly as I speak Spanish now, and her teacher certification was no good in the states anyway. They had two daughters that were about the same age as my daughter, and they played together every day, and swam together at the university pool in the summer. The mother and I became friends, and were able to communicate by filling the gaps between my poor Spanish and her poor English by helping each other with the languages.

Now I teach in a high school with a large Latino/a student population, so I speak Spanish more frequently than I have in 20+ years. But 3 years into this experience I haven't really learned anything new, because it's my job to teach them English in my content area, so I do the same thing with them that I did with my Argentinian friend 20+ years ago. I rely on "Como  dice...en Espanol?" ("How do you Spanish?"). I have Spanish/English dictionaries in my room for the students so they can learn English better. This does nothing to encourage me to stretch and learn more Spanish.

Mostly I use my Spanish to make my Latino/a students feel more comfortable, always greeting them and asking how they are in Spanish. One day a couple of years ago I greeted one of our Latino students as usual in Spanish. He responded as usual, but then continued on in a rapid stream of Spanish out of which I was only able to pick out a few words. I gave him a confused, straining look as I hesitated, trying to pick out and sort the words I recognized into something that I could understand, but even if I'd been able to do that quickly enough for it to not be socially awkward, I still wouldn't have been able to formulate a response because I no longer have any vocabulary.

So I sighed, and immediately confessed that "Yo hablo muy, muy poquito Espanol."

He smiled, and said in heavily accented English,"Really? Because you speak Spanish with no American accent." Wow. I had fooled an actual native Spanish-speaker into thinking I could speak the language, without even trying! That was great feedback to get, because through that interaction I discovered that at least I pronounce what little I do know correctly!

But that was two years ago, and I'm no further along than I was. And now I feel the hot breath of the PhD demons on my heels, reminding me that I really should NOT wait until I'm about to take my oral and written exams to try to "bone up" on my Spanish! And what a waste of a wonderful opportunity--I have all these students and several really terrific colleagues at school who are fluent also who I'm sure would be willing to help me out.

The Universe started prodding me. I received several email solicitations from Rosetta Stone announcing huge mark-downs of their Spanish language modules (but even so, they are still really, really expensive). My mind drifted to my "Spanish for Gringos" CDS, gathering dust in the corner of my office. Then, Good News Network posted an announcement that the Foreign Service Institute has made all of its old language courses available for free to the public online: Wahoo! I went straight to the Spanish section and started going through their documents and sound files.

It occurred to me at this point that I already have documents and sound files--two different courses, complete with CDs, that I've been through without really exerting myself. At this point it occurred to me that what I really need is someone to work with me so I can practice in a natural way (rather than learning all of Mr. White's lines in the Foreign Service Institute dialogues). So I invited a Facebook friend (we'll call him "Friend A") to work with me online, and he said yes. Then, another friend ("Friend B") who is a lot more fluent than I am, but still wants to work on her Spanish jumped in, and I have two friends helping me online.

By far the single most useful thing I've done to ramp up my learning speed has been this: Friend A suggested that I change my language settings in Facebook to Espanol. Wow! I did that, and all the sudden I learned about 20 words that we see over and over in Facebook on buttons, links, etc. Me gusta! That's when Friend B jumped in--she thought that was a fantastic suggestion, too, and wanted to know how to change the settings.

So far so good. Friend A now only writes to me in Spanish, which is fantastic, and Friend B jumped on this bandwagon, too. I have finally found a useful purpose for the Google translation tool (because it really stinks for just copying and pasting blocks of text and getting anything that makes sense out of it): I only use it as a sort of Spanish/English, English/Spanish dictionary. I read the Spanish passages and try to work out what they mean without any help. Then I cut and past the individual words or short phrases from within the sentences that I don't know into the Google translation tool. This works GREAT because it means I'm learning vocabulary! It also works great because I'm now really LEARNING.

This morning, after I spent about 30 minutes using this method to translate two paragraphs of text, it occurred to me that I should make a list each day of all the new Spanish words I've learned, and attempt to use them in other contexts immediately, and then throughout the day, so I don't forget it all before it has a chance to sink in. So here's me doing that--today's words/phrases :

Spanish      -        English
idioma        -        language
ver mas      -        see more
ayudando/ayudandote  - helping/helping you 
la vida         -        life
agredicido   -        grateful
comentar    -        comment
gusta          -        like
configuración -     setting (literally: configuration)
ahora          -        now
Me quedo feliz -   I'm happy
se cambia    -       changes
se hace una manera - is a way (se hace=is, una manera=a way)
para            -       for, to
practicar      -        practice
perfil           -        profile
inicio           -        starting place / kick-off (in Facebook, this is the Home page)
eliminar       -        delete/remove
Hace una hora aproximadamente - about an hour ago
approximadamente - approximately
leer             -        to read
escribir        -        to write
mejor           -       better
despues       -        then/later/after
traduzco      -        translate
presos         -        prisoners
encanta       -        love
todavia        -        still
buena suerte -       good luck
hablando      -        talking
hablo           -        I talk/speak
decir            -        to say
puedo          -        I can
recibe          -        get
palabras       -        words
tambien        -       also
suena           -       sounds (as in, "sounds like")
de nuevo      -       again
esta manera -       this way

If any of you reading this (if anyone is reading this) are fluent in Spanish, you'll see right away that haven't used the infinitive forms of many of the verbs in my list--I just copied them out of the sentences the way they were used, understanding that if I use them in other forms I'll have to learn the correct conjugations. But for now, I'm just so happy to have increased my Spanish vocabulary by several words! This new method of learning the language is already working really well, and I'm so excited estaaprendiendo Español! 

If there are any other friends out there who want to join in on the fun of helping me (and maybe even helping yourself) to learn Spanish, don't be shy! Come on in; the water's fine. ;-) 

1 comment:

Emily said...

Wow it seems you learnt a lot!!!
I don't know what to decide... because my best friend is going to a spanish school in Argentina... and I don't know what to do... if doing the same thing as her, or to take lessons here in the US, or, just travell all around South America..... what do you recommend me? I'm asking to people I don't know for their opinions because I thinks the can be more objetives, I'm sick of my parents opinion about this issu... so, hope you can help me