Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Un dia, todo sera claro
Really, debería escribir esto en español. But then you’d have to use Google Translate to read it, and who knows how that would turn out?
It was a scarce five months ago that I got serious about learning Spanish. I’m not there yet, but just this week I’ve started to feel like I might actually be able to do this. It’s been a humbling and frustrating experience, but knowing that one day soon I might actually be conversant in this language that I’ve always loved completely thrills me.
When we first arrived in Honduras, one of the other Cuso International volunteers here told me there would be a moment when it would all become clear. I’m still waiting, but I did notice that this week at the Monday morning devotional at my workplace, I understood almost all of what was being said. I even felt sufficiently emboldened to pipe up with a sentence or two.
Sure, it’s the cumulative effect of Spanish classes and the Spanish novels and newspapers I’m making myself read, and the all-Spanish work environment that includes the rather terrifying challenge of writing funding proposals in Spanish. But I also think Spanish television has a lot to do with it, being as we just got a TV and cable a couple weeks ago. There’s nothing like struggling to understand what the heck they’re saying in the movie you’re trying to watch to really sharpen your listening skills.
Probably 10 years ago when I first tried to learn Spanish, I read an article in a Mexican magazine that talked about how anyone older than 14 or so had to learn a new language in a different part of the brain. When you’re a kid, you learn language just by hearing it spoken around you, without having to attach any logical explanation to any of it. But once you get past a certain age the learning moves to a part of your brain that demands to know why you have to do things a certain way.
It was strangely comforting to discover that, because I’d already noticed by then that I was constantly looking for an understanding of why you used a certain tense, a certain structure, a certain turn of phrase. Unfortunately, what that other-part-of-the-brain business really means is that you have to understand Spanish grammar if you’re ever going to get the language down.
I grew up in B.C., which has been home to a lot of flaky learning strategies over the years (remember classrooms without walls?). My graduating class of 1974 had the distinction of being the cohort that never learned grammar. So there’s a certain irony in learning the rules of grammar for the first time some 40 years after finishing school. But what the heck.
The best thing I did was to pick teachers whose first language was Spanish (Jose Bermudez Cuadros in Victoria is great for one-on-one classes). There’s no way you’re going to grasp pronunciation if you’re learning from a non-native speaker with their own foreign accent, and the worst of it is you’ll never even know that their pronunciation is off.
And the other best thing I did was pick teachers who were fussy about grammar. It was boring sometimes and I hated having to internalize all the rules, but what it has meant is that I now know how to create a sentence even if I don’t always have all the necessary words at my command. Vocabulary comes with time, but you’re lost if you don’t know how to put the words together.
As I’ve learned the hard way, sentence structure is virtually as important as vocabulary for understanding (and being understood in) a new language. All those hours of drilling pronouns and verb tenses are starting to pay off. I still write Spanish like an English speaker, but at least I’m getting the hang of where to put all those se’s and lo’s that are thrown around like confetti in Spanish.
I used to wonder what it would be like to be a dog. I empathized with our late dog Jack as he got thrown into the car or the motor home with no idea of where he was going or when he’d be back. And now I know, having passed many puzzling work days with no real idea of what’s happening around me or why they’re telling me to get in the back of the truck.
But one bonus of not speaking the language is that you pay much more attention to non-verbal cues. I first noticed that phenomenon in my sister-in-law Grace, a relatively new transplant from China who I soon realized could “read” things in our family interactions that I had completely missed. I get that now, having seen how a lack of language skills prompts you to watch people much more acutely as you desperately try to get a read on a situation. It’s a good reminder to shut your ears off once in a while.
Ya bastante, as they say in Spanish – enough already. When I’m dreaming in Spanish, I’ll know I’ve arrived.