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How I learned Spanish

September 8, 2014
English: Spanish language (major differences)

English: Spanish language (major differences) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am not a native speaker of Spanish but sometimes to me it seems almost as if I were. Before I was old enough to remember, my family moved to a border-town in Texas where the default language on the streets was Spanish, not English. In pre-school and then school official instruction was in English but many students spoke among themselves in Spanish and often teachers would address the class in Spanish. At age four I certainly knew the admonition, “Sientate y callete la boca!” In third grade, native Spanish speakers went to the main school where third grade was taught and those who chose not to have their children given classes on Spanish language and literature for native Spanish speakers (a choice made by were relatively few there) went to the school I attended. An old class-mate of mine met me one day and was shocked to see me. He assumed I must have moved and then when it was clear I hadn’t left town asked if I had flunked. The statement I did not know Spanish (or at least that my parents decided not to send me to the other school) that I made to him merely elicited a stunned look as if I were claiming to be bad at math (at which I excelled). Nobody had asked me which school I wanted to go to, and I’m not sure anyone even bothered to ask my parents who spoke no Spanish. In all the time I lived in Texas, I was only allowed by my parents to go to a friend’s house once that I recall, and as perfect as my friend’s English was, the grandmother who was raising him did not speak nor understand a word. If I were asked at that point if I spoke Spanish, I am sure I would have said, “No,” but if someone spoke to me in Spanish, I probably would have simply responded without thinking about what I was doing. Of course, I would have responded in English if speaking were involved but correctly for the situation otherwise. Then a few months before I turned nine, we left town.

That involves an adventure which would be an interesting digression but (sticking to the point of this post) the family eventually settled in Florida where until the age of sixteen I lived on a boat. This was south-central Florida, not certain parts of Miami, and so few people spoke Spanish. I dealt with the massive culture shock of which my parents seemed completely oblivious for the most part and did not think about Spanish again until eighth grade when I learned on the first day that, with my parents’ consent but without them mentioning it to me, I had been signed up for a Spanish class. While the fact I was neither asked nor told irritated me, I accepted the fait accompli. Through the first quarter and into the second I struggled to make sense of the material I was being taught. I found myself (when I said things aloud to myself doing homework) mentally correcting myself and doing it right to my own surprise. Specifically, I would find myself saying, “That doesn’t sound right,” and if I listened to my subconscious, changing things to the right way of saying them in comprehensible and normal-sounding Spanish. How my mental suggestions could be right was something I did not understand, and so often I second-guessed myself. In class, my conscious mind was fully engaged trying to make sense of unfamiliar patterns and to understand apparent exceptions while my subconscious mind just kept telling me how to do it when the thinking part of my brain was silent. It was never silent in class except for odd moments here and there, but my pronunciation was always perfect and natural Spanish with an accent of the border-region in northeastern Mexico. No academic subject had ever so confused me in my life and that first quarter I got the first C grade of my life. I learned later that the teacher had to go to bat for me to allow me to be kept in the school’s pilot Spanish program, and I am deeply grateful that she did. That teacher whose name I sadly forget had faith in me, and that faith soon paid off because– relatively shortly into the second quarter of the school year— something mentally clicked and the two parts of my mind began to work together. Thereafter Spanish was easy for me.

Strangely, I had not yet discovered my passion for languages. My only reason for taking Spanish was that colleges required two years of a foreign language. I took for granted that Spanish had become easy because all academic subjects were easy for me. Notably, in spite of promises made the previous year of high school credit for Spanish I, I was told I and my fellow students entering high school who had taken the Spanish class would have to either repeat Spanish I for high school credit or take Spanish II and III for our two years of a high school foreign language. Naturally, I would have been bored silly to repeat a year, and so I chose to take at least the second and third year of a four-year sequence of classes in Spanish.

While my first Spanish teacher in middle school was a good teacher, my teacher (Mrs. Kopp) during my first two years of high school was absolutely brilliant. When for a period some years later I was a teacher, she was the teacher who most stood out in my mind as someone to emulate professionally. She made people work, set high standards and genuinely cared about her students. What she excelled at though was motivating students. A classmate my first year desperately struggled with Spanish II, never had the mental breakthrough that I did and was constantly embarrassed that he could not shake his thick Alabama accent; yet Mrs. Kopp gave him the help and encouragement he needed to do the work and at least pass the class. Her classes were also fun so that for example laughing and joking were often allowed in class, so long as they were done only through Spanish. She also got us (i.e., her students) to speak to her and to each other outside of class in Spanish as much as possible. For those who did not struggle with the material, her Spanish II class provided a basic level of fluency, albeit with comparatively limited vocabulary. Then third year Spanish was taught as a literature class entirely in Spanish with books to read individually, daily sets of essay questions in Spanish to be answered in Spanish about what we were reading and one on one conversations with her about anything and everything, all in Spanish. When at age fifteen (just shortly before my 16th birthday) I left that high school to go to another county because my family moved, I could effortlessly talk about anything in Spanish, thinking in Spanish, reading books in Spanish and knowing enough about the various Spanish language cultures and histories to be a fluent Spanish speaker with a passable level of cultural understanding.

At my new high school, I enrolled into Spanish IV for my third year of high school because I figured I may as well finish the program, but the class was a terrible joke. Except for the teacher and three native speakers in the class, no one knew Spanish and no one tried. The four people who did use Spanish just spoke quietly among themselves. I was simply assumed not to be able to hold a conversation in Spanish and was made to feel unwelcome to try. To add insult to the proverbial injury, the assignments in each class were photocopied of pages I recognized from the workbook I had used in the first quarter of my first year of Spanish. I was so disgusted that I would do the assignments in a couple of minutes and use the class as a study hall. Of course, once it became clear that I could effortlessly do the assignments quickly, I had to be careful of classmates stealing my work off the teacher’s desk to copy. No one seemed to notice or care; I only realized it when a girl in the class trying to copy my work complained that she could not read my handwriting. I became simply disgusted with the whole situation and stopped using any Spanish at all except when I had to.

When I entered university, I started Latin (a subject I intend to talk about in a future post) and I drew on my dormant Spanish for pronunciation, to help understand grammatical concepts like the subjunctive and to help learn vocabulary via cognates. Yet I did not really consider attempting to revive my Spanish (in spite of having chosen a career path for which I needed to know Latin, Greek, German, French and Italian as well as English) until an encounter on a bus after my second year at college. During a break between the Spring and Summer terms, I took a Greyhound bus down to visit my family in central Florida and another back. On the bus during the return trip (as I think it was) were a pair of migrant workers who reminded me strongly of the people I’d grown up about in Texas and they clearly spoke no English. Mostly I ignored them and read the book I had brought along for entertainment on the trip. Yet at one point I saw and heard an exchange between the two men. They had misunderstood an announcement saying that the next stop was Cocoa Beach but that the last stop before a change of bus would be needed was New Smyrna. From what they clearly said, they thought New Smyrna was the next stop. I struggled trying to think of the words to tell them but just drew a mental blank. At last as the bus stopped, I stood up from my seat because I simply had to say something to help them and stop them getting off. My conscious mind was panicking with no idea what to say, but instinct took over and a simply said, “Estamos en Cocoa Beach,” telling them where they were. They looked at me confused and asked, “No New Smyrna?” With a sigh of relief suppressed as much as I could, I just repeated, “No New Smyrna,” and everything was okay. I decided to get my Spanish back up to speed, even if all I could do it for was reading. At a flea market run in the student union each week, I found a Spanish translation of a novel by Jules Verne I’d read in English translation, “Voyage au centre de la terre.” Shortly thereafter I got my own apartment and that first week between terms, I read that book.

That was more than twenty years ago. Since then I try to read something in Spanish at least every now and then, and I use it for speaking or listening whenever possible. I am routinely accepted as a fluent Spanish speaker but I do not get to speak the language often anymore. Certainly conversations do not come as easily to me in the language as they did when I was fifteen. Still, whatever vocabulary I may have forgotten, I daresay I hope I am a better conversationalist now than I was as a teenager.

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