Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Jumping A Language Hurdle

The cast of "Cuéntame Como Pasó

I've been studying Spanish for a good part of 11 years. My studies began during my 4 years of high school. In most cases, 4 years of any language in a US high school amounts to about 1 month of a personal tutor. However, for me, during two of my four years I had a GREAT Spanish teacher. She was a rare breed of High School Spanish teachers that didn't just teach grammar grammar and more grammar. Señora Mickleson taught us how to communicate. She taught us how to observe the culture. She taught me what it meant to catch what you could when a cashier is talking at 90 miles (no kilometers) a minute, and try your best to say what you came to say. I remember really struggling with grammar in high school. I did poorly on tests in which I had to conjugate verbs in the preterit, imperfect, and indefinite preterit tenses. However, during my senior year of high school, our final was an oral test. I was scared to death. I had to spend a good half hour discussing a basic topic with Señora Mickleson. Based on my previous testing skills, I was sure I'd fail. However, at the end of the oral exam, I received some of the best encouragement I've ever received from a teacher. She told me that I did I very good job. I communicated. I think she told me more things but I remember being shocked that I had actually done something in Spanish well. And when I received my final test score, I realized I'd done better than above average. I receive more points than were possible on the test!

Thus began my desire to really learn Spanish. I wanted to communicate. Over the course of my time in Señora Mickleson's class. I had developed a passion for all things Spanish. My brothers even thought I would marry Latino blood. (Jesse's close in my brothers' eyes . . .) When college began, I chose elementary education as my major. Each El. Ed. major had to have an area of specialization. So naturally, I chose Spanish. This meant I would receive training on Spanish, in Spanish and how to TEACH Spanish to others-specifically children. I took 4 more years of Spanish classes in college.

Then during my last semester of college, I received a phenomenal opportunity to student teach in Spain. I'd always dreamed of studying aboard, but lack of financial resources and an earlier than expected marriage proposal changed all of that. (And no-I wouldn't trade the past for anything!) After eight months of marriage, I traveled to Spain for 2 months. There I taught a class of Spanish 1st graders. The kids were the best because they would actually correct my Spanish. I lived in a Spanish household and I was finally given the opportunity to communicate to real live Spanish speakers. This was when I really learned how to speak and understand the basics.

When I returned home, my years as a Spanish student were seemingly over. However, I quickly learned that the Spanish learning was really only just beginning! I earned a job as a 1-6 grade Elementary Spanish teacher. You may think this entailed only teaching "elementary" Spanish, but it was quite different than you expected. I taught only in Spanish, and I taught my students things they were also learning in their regular classroom. This required some new communicative skills which I learned quickly. My second year of teaching proved to be an even greater time of learning as our school had more Hispanic students. This created many many opportunities for me to talk to parents, translate for conferences, and even counsel a few grief stricken and "love" sick 5th graders.

When I stayed home to take care of Renae, I was given more time to hang out with my 2 good Mexican friends. Of course, we spoke in Spanish together so I learned some more.

So let's do the math. 4 years of High School Spanish. 4 years of college Spanish. 2 years teaching Spanish. 1 year of hanging out Spanish. 11 years it's taken me to reach this point:

  • Today I watched an entire 45 minute episode of a popular Spanish show. And I understood all of it. Not just part, not just the general gist of it, but all of it. In fact, I even laughed out loud at a joke I understood!

I couldn't believe it. You may be thinking, "It took you 11 years to get to that point??" I know I know . . . it shouldn't take that long. But keep it mind, many of my years of classroom Spanish was NOT based on immersion and communicating. It was class after class of grammar. If all you ever learn is grammar, you will not learn a language my friend. Think about how you learned English. Did someone constantly have to translate your baby word to the real English word? Did your Mother first explain the rules of grammar before she taught you how to ask for more? Most likely not.

When I was finally in an environment in which I had no opportunity to translate back into my original language, and I was forced to communicate my point as best I knew how, THEN I began to get it. Although I didn't know the quickest, shortest way to say my point, I could take the round about way by using vocabulary I did know. So if you are learning another language, be encouraged! Don't focus and worry so much about the grammar. Observe the native speakers. Listen to what they say for certain things, at certain times. You might not understand the meaning of what they said, but you will be able to know what to say in that instance. This is how one learns a language. You can't learn it by listening to language CD's all day, nor can you learn it by conjugating the verb hablar into 8 different tenses. It you truly want to learn a language, introduce yourself to someone who speaks that language and build a friendship with them. You will learn a lot if you are willing to be the humble and teachable student. And then hopefully you will reach this hurdle I reached today. But you will reach it much sooner than I did.

Side note: I'm very passionate about languages and how people learn languages because that is what I was trained in. So, I like to talk a lot about it. I apologize if any part of my LONG post offended anyone who sees things differently.

Side note two: I did watch the show with subtitles. But they were Spanish subtitles :)


Jonathan & Kari said...

Understanding tv shows is HARD in another language. I still have a hard time following French tv (of course, maybe some of that has to do with the plots...) so I know what a hurdle this is.

As one who has been learning French for 24 years, I am incredibly impressed that your Spanish communication skills are as great as they are.


Mandi said...

Oh I loved this post! I know how important culture and languages are to you and I would LOVE it if my own kids could grow up learning another language! And I fully agree with you that EDUCATION in a language is just grammar. It's hard to truly learn until you're immersed in the language - whether it be in that country or like you mentioned having a friend you speak that language with.

I never studied French or especially Creole before I moved to Haiti. But I learned so much (enough to communicate on my own!) of the language just by living there for those 6 months. And that's how I would recommend to ANYONE to learn a language - just GO! Sure take your classes and get a foundation, but don't stop there!

Anywho. I love you! And I'm proud of you for being able to watch a show and understand it -- it was a soap opera wasn't it ;-) hehe!

CarrieAmelia said...

SOOO cool!!! I have actually been having conversations lately about classroom vs. real life. This just totally solidifies my opinion!! I hope everything is going well for you!!

kpjordan said...

Julie, your post is an encouragement to me. Kevin and I have met our new neighbors from France...she speaks little English and I speak less French. But we're building a friendship and I'm excited about it. But I also have Fr lessons that Kevin put on my ipod for me. I'm excited to learn.
Au revoir,

Jenny said...

Julie, that is awesome!! I'm proud of you!!