Friday, December 31, 2010

How I Learned to Speak Spanish, Part II

When I was admitted to the university, I was 22 years old. I knew I didn't have the time to go the usual route of taking Spanish 101, 102, and so on. So I lied to my advisor, told her that I'd studied Spanish before, and enrolled in Spanish Intermediate Intensive. On the first day of class, when our Salvadoran teacher came into the classroom and started prattling in his very difficult Central American Spanish, I realized that I was in trouble. When he announced that we were going to do an overview of the Preterite and the Imperfect, I realized that I was in even bigger trouble because these words meant nothing to me.

I knew that I had to learn to speak and fast if I wanted to get that PhD within a reasonable amount of time. I was an immigrant, I had no money. Any exchange program was out of the question because of the conditions of my visa and money constraints. Besides, my underage sister was living with me, and I couldn't just abandon her and flee to yet another country. There was no money for a tutor or an immersion program. But there was something a lot better, though: the rich and vibrant Hispanic community of Montreal. I made friends with Spanish speakers from many different countries. That wasn't easy for me. I have Asperger's and meeting people is not something I enjoy (to put it very, very mildly). But I made the effort and started visiting all kinds of events where Spanish speakers were present.

I had a neighbor from Colombia who was going through a convoluted drama with her boyfriend. She would ask me over and narrate the story of her life for hours. (I am extremely thankful for the fact that so many Spanish-speakers love to talk.) At first, I understood about 5% of what she was saying. Obviously, I couldn't say much in return, so I just looked compassionate and nodded. As a result, she started presenting me to her friends as a very kind person and the best listener she ever met. So more people started asking me over to share their stories. And I had even more opportunities to listen, look compassionate, and nod. Later, when I learned to speak and we became best friends I told my very first Colombian interlocutor, "Look, you have to retell me all your stories once again because the first time around I didn't understand a word of them." I was extremely lucky in meeting her because Colombian Spanish is considered the most correct in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.
There was also a language exchange program affiliated with our university. These programs allow people who don't have money for language lessons to swap their language skills. Say, you want to learn Russian and I want to learn German. We meet, talk for an hour in my language and then for another hour in yours. As a result, everybody gets to speak and listen, the environment is casual and relaxed, and the learning process is enjoyable.
To compliment these activities, I also read in Spanish all the time. I had already arived by that time at what would become the basis of my language teaching philosophy: when talking and reading compliment each other, you get great results. So I read. I don't believe in adapted texts or easy solutions. So I decided to start with reading Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo. For those who know this book it must be very clear why that was an insane choice of the first book ever to read in Spanish. The first time I read this beautiful but extremely complex work of literature that not every native speaker understands on the first reading I had no idea what it was about. But I felt it was beautiful. So I read it once more. And the third time. And then something kind of became a little clearer. So I decided to read Miguel de Unamuno's Niebla. Again, those who know this novel are now thinking that I am a very crazy person because it's also a very complex book.
I also persecuted my Salvadoran Spanish teacher with questions. He would dread the sight of me appearing at his office yet again to announce: "I don't understand Preterito and Imperfecto!" He would explain for hours, bring print-outs, activities, transparencies. "Do you understand it now?" he'd ask, desperate for some good news. "No!" I'd respond brightly. Then, he would start all over again. Today, whenever I go back to Canada to speak at a conference, my teacher (who in the meantime went from being a graduate student to a tenured professor) always comes to listen. He sits there looking very proud and then comes up to me after the talk to ask, "So now do you understand the differences between Preterito and Imperfecto?" "Yes," I say. "But now I have to explain it to students who refuse to understand."
In short, I lived and breathed Spanish for this entire period of time. Within 18 months, I was teaching Spanish at a private language school. In 2,5 years, I walked into my very frist college classroom as a teacher of Spanish. (I'll blog about that experience one day because that course was something special.) And only 3,5 years since I started learning, I published by very first research article in Spanish. And not in some graduate journal, or anything like that. I published in Anales Galdosianos, a very prestigious, "real" scholarly journal. As I said, I'm very proud of my Spanish and I will boast all I want about it. :-)
It's been almost 12 years since I said my first words in Spanish. Of course, learning a language is a project of a lifetime, even if you are a native speaker. A language is a living entity, and we renegotiate our relationship with it on a daily basis. Learning a new language gives you access to an entire civilization, to a world of experiences, to a version of yourself that is completely different from what you are when you speak your own language.
For those who want to learn to speak a foreign language very fast and very well, I have the following suggestions:
  1. Speak. You don't need a pricey immersion program, a trip, or an exchange visit to learn. Of course, if you can afford them, that's fantastic. Have fun and enjoy this great opportunity. Many people, however, simply don't have the resources to afford anything like this nowadays. My advice to you is to find  in your town a language exchange program like the one I described. If it doesn't exist, start one. Find a Spanish store or a community newspaper and place an ad for a free exchange of language knowledge. There are many immigrants who would love to teach you their language in exchange for practicing English with you. What should you do, though, if there are no speakers of your target language who live in your area? Not to worry, today's technological advances have solved that problem, too. How many people in the world would love to improve their knowledge of English in exchange for practicing their language with you? All you need to do is find them and talk to them through Skype or any other similar program. Even though you might have no money, you still have a very valuable commodity: your knowledge of English. Make use of it in your language learning.
  2. Read. Reading in the target language is crucial because it builds up vocabulary and gives you what the Germans call "Sprachgefühl" (an intuitive understanding of how a language works.) When I was learning Spanish, I read for at least 6 hours a day every single day in my target language. As a result, I now have a vocabulary that is extremely rich. Not everybody has the time to read this much, of course, but reading at least a page a day will boost your language learning in a way that nothing else will.
  3. Tell yourself stories. Try to narrate to yourself in the target language things that you see around you. Funny comics, an encounter with friends, a list of things you need to do, a curious blog post you have read: try retelling all this to yourself in Spanish. It's best to do it out loud, of course, but if that's not convenient, tell it to yourself in your head. This will teach you to think in the target language, instead of trying to translate every sentence (a horrible practice to be avoided at all costs.)
Good luck!

P.S. I know that these last two posts sound extremely self-congratulatory, but come on, people, it's New Year's. A person should be able to celebrate her massive achievements on such a festive occasion. :-)


Michael Blekhman said...

More than interesting!

Especially for the father, who, when we lived in Ukraine, did his best (and worst, too) to make you study Spanish. :) You were 16 years old, so it was far from easy.

I asked you to spend 20 minutes a day, twice a week, to read the beautiful Spanish text-book I had given to you. You said you did, but I understood that 16 years old is not the best age for listening to one's parents.

And now, mother and I are proud of you and of our small (or not very small :) contribution to your success.

God bless you, dear daughter, in the New Year and in the years to come!!!!

We kiss you!!

Your mother and father.

Richard said...

I enjoyed reading about your intellectual journey from a Ukrainian school girl to a respected scholar of Spanish Civilization. It sounds like your father must have helped nudge you in that direction. You and he both can be proud of your accomplishments. Also, and here I am being parochial, I think Spanish is on its way to being the second language of the U.S. and Latin America a major economic force in this hemisphere. You chose a good language in which to be to be proficient.

Shedding Khawatir said...

Great advice! Especially about the reading which I think is often ignored as secondary when the focus is on "communicative methods." I am also a big believer in number 3, and do it all the time, and often out loud. Being seen as a perpetual mutterer of gibberish is a small price to pay for language fluency ;-)

fairykarma said...

Indeed. Well done.

The only thing missing from my own languages studies is your rigor and focus. 6 hours?! I think we have a budding Giacomo Leopardi.

1. Did you read with the English translation and original Spanish side to side?
2. At what point did you start to use Spanish-Spanish dictionaries?
3. How many Spanish novels total would you say you covered in that 18 months?
4. Just for fun. Would you do it again with another language?

Clarissa said...

Great questions! :-)

1. No, I think that consulting translations or involving translation at any point of beginner and intermediate level learning is a huge mistake. It does nothing but confuse the learner. This is why I used this really good Spanish-Spanish dictionary with lots of pictures. It's a lot better to associate a word with an image than with a word in another language.

3. Believe it or not, I could actually count them and give an exact number because I record all the books I read. :-) I will find out the number in a while.

4. NO! NEVER! :-) :-) As much as I'd love to learn Portuguese, for example, the mere idea of doing somthing like this all over again gives me a massive headache. :-)

Denny said...

Kudos! I, for one, don't believe in false modesty. It's clear you accomplished something rather extraordinary and you have every right to pat yourself on the back, as well as receive the praise of others.

I would like to mention that a friend of mine from college learned Chinese in precisely this way, by watching Chinese soap operas and surrounding herself with native Chinese speakers. However, she understandably didn't learn to read and write Chinese until she began formal studies in school.

Angie Harms. said...

Thanks so much for this! I am very impressed. I have a similar experience when I meet native speakers for the first time, but my white-blond hair and extreme Nordic appearance confuse people. I learned my Spanish almost entirely through immersion and self-teaching, but I started MUCH younger (at 16 - with a year-long exchange in Spain - I am now 31). I tried to take a couple of advanced Spanish classes in college but got too frustrated with the extremely slow pace of the courses, which were tailored to slower students and those who came in with less knowledge of the language. Personally I have found reading (novels) and writing (letters, emails, and journaling) in Spanish to be the main tools that have REALLY helped me learn, especially during the times when I am living in the States with relatively few Spanish-speaking friends.

Here's another question for you: I currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Latino/Spanish-speaking population is quite large. But I am so conscientious of the arrogant gringo stereotype that when I encounter someone whose first language is obviously Spanish, in a restaurant or supermarket for example, I NEVER break out my Spanish. I ONLY offer the fact that I speak Spanish when it is obvious the person doesn't speak much English and is having trouble communicating, or when there is a greater amount of "confianza" with the person, for example if I meet him/her at a friend's party or through work. What's your opinion on these kinds of interactions? Do you generally seize any opportunity to speak Spanish or are you more conservative? I spent 2007-2009 living in Central America; I have been back in the States for just over a year now and am starting to feel the Spanish-speaking part of my brain getting rusty, especially when the book I am currently reading is not in Spanish. I HATE this feeling. But I know NO Spanish speakers out here that are not fully bilingual. It might be time to find a language partner on Craigslist...

Dina The Nomad said...

hAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAA, that's how I learned Arabic..... and than 1 year in Damascus Un. to learn some
Literary Arabic /Modern Standard Arabic/ . Hahahaha, still remember endless, sleepless nights with women complaining and etc....

A question: what do you think about Rosetta Stone sistem of learning Spanish. Because that's what I just started doing. Should I waste my time or it's O.K.? I need just to understand and be able to have simple conversation.

Clarissa said...

Rosetta Stone definitely can't hurt. Especially if you find a native speaker to practice with. Even if it's just an hour a week, practicing with a native speaker makes all the difference.

How To Learn Spanish said...

Very good tips indeed! I’ll pass them on to the members of our language exchange club: