Monthly Archives: February 2008

Hey, What’s Going Out There?

I cannot tell you the number of calls we get from parents of elementary, junior high and high school students asking us to help their child through their Spanish class at school.  There are a number of reasons I hear for why their child is not doing well and I am certain that their theories for their child are absolutely true.  They range from; she was put in a class that is beyond her ability and now she is behind, his teacher and he just don’t have that all important chemistry, she has a different learning style than the classroom can accommodate, he doesn’t test well but he can speak, etc.

As I read between the lines I see loud and clear that these kids WANT to learn Spanish and for whatever reason they are instead experiencing disappointment and failure. 

The solution to these concerns for any particular child can be complicated to decipher but what is true for all of them,  for all of us, is that when we try to do that thing that is hard we will experience our limits.  And it is these limits that signal to us that we have mastered everything that lies below us and right now, at this very site of frustration marks a place beyond which we have never been before.  This is great news!  If we couldn’t feel this process in effort, if this process was invisible to us, then we would have no way of knowing that we were in that exact moment where we could learn and grow.  Then we would not be able to recognize that glorious feeling of satisfaction and victory when we have successfully mastered the next step.  How tragic that would be!

To make this challenging endeavor pay off for us, we do need to find the right fit in a teacher and methodology and environment and maybe that means a student in K-12, who doesn’t have the luxury of shopping around for the best fit, would do well to supplement his or her learning with someone outside the classroom.   But we also need to face up to the fact that it is only with effort felt, often as insecurity and discomfort, that we master our way up, step by step to fluency. 

Hey, what’s going on out there?  Learning Spanish is difficult and it is hard work.  But I’ll bet that anything you  have mastered and enjoy doing now, had at it’s initial stages, that head banging experience.  The first time you touched that musical instrument or danced salsa or cooked paella or ran 5 miles or lifted 100 lbs or spoke YOUR native language.  We forget.  Once we are there, we spend our time basking and enjoying our hard earned skill and forget (mercifully) what it took to get there.  It will happen with Spanish as well.  Hang in there and recognize the ‘burn’ for what it is and respect yourself for ‘playing through it’.

Cuidense bien…….  -Joan

!!!!!!Hey, and don’t forget to check out our videos and podcasts!!!!!!!

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Through the Looking Glass…..

You’ll notice that this entry is falling under a new category called “Teaching Methodologies”.  We are not uppity about the content under this category and we ask that the reader consider relaxing their pre-conceptions about what this means or should mean as well, because what we portend to put here is our personal take on what can be helpful toward success in learning Spanish.

Disclaimer in place, this entry is about ‘making it real’.  We are gearing up for our Spring classes and so we are getting the expected flury of calls about who, what, when, where and how.  (did you ever think there would be such real life relevance to that little bit of prose we all learned in 2nd grade?)

The “‘who” is ‘taking on a whole new face’ so to speak this time around.  We recently put up a new website that better reflects the “who, what, when, where and how” of Rojas Spanish Language, Inc.  which includes lots of pictures of generous students along with Luis and I.  The reactions we are getting are interesting to say the least.  I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised because as we have seen in this primary season, in their attempt to summarize who they are, the contenders offer us some mix between who they really are and their ‘scripted’ show, so scripted to play well to their target audience.  We then make our decisions based on what we ‘percieve’ to be their personality or their competence, qualities between which we will likely put more weight depending what we think will serve us better on the whole.  The process of evaluating all of this information can be dizzying.   Just when you find your heart leaning toward one contender or the other, your head puts in it’s two cents and there you are off and undecided again.  “Are they saying that because they truly believe it?  Are they saying that because they think that is what I want to hear?  Are they telling me everything or just what they would like if all things were possible, knowing full well they aren’t?”  It’s a disorienting mix of possibilities.

So here’s where I find myself fascinated today.  As people are calling to ask about classes, I am often asked first, if it is me in the photos of the web page.  After the confirmation a notably less guarded conversation unfolds than I am accustomed to having with people calling for information.  The conversations are more relaxed and more neighborly.  And we find ourselves in conversations more markedly philosophical about learning Spanish.  I suspect it is more what people in their unguarded moments, say the shower, are saying or wondering to themselves.  IT IS ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTFUL!

I remember looking at various websites as we were revamping ours and having long conversations about who we were as individuals and as a program and what it was that we wanted our students or perspective students to learn about us quickly.  How could we be true to ourselves and at the same time, help the people who were considering studying with us make a solid decision about whether we would match up well with them.   It just seems ya just can’t anything done if there is bad chemistry, so this attempt to show our chemistry was vital to us. 

Luis said;  “We need to show pictures.  Lot’s of pictures of you and me and the students.  We need to show people that we are just like them and that our students are just like them.  That we have more in common than not.  That we won’t beat them up.  That people can have fun learning a hard thing and we will do our best to make it fun for them when they study with us.”  Geeze, how could I argue with that?  But my German side wanted to know if there was a way we could communicate all of that without MY pictures.  As you can tell, we have concluded for the time being that there is not!

So my conclusion is this.  It is worthy to risk being vulnerable in front of the people to whom we are asking to be vulnerable with us.  We hope that allowing you to see us gives you the courage to take your innermost reflections and fears about learning Spanish straight to a class somewhere with someone.  Could be you are not a good fit for our program, but there are lots of programs out there and they too are run by people, just people, who have a passion to share their passion for the language with you.  There is not one of us who is learning Spanish as a second language who didn’t go through what you are going through in this moment.  We survived them only to go through new moments down the road.  String those moments together and sooner than you could have imagined, you find yourself back home again, but speaking Spanish.

Nos hablaremos pronto…….  -Joan

!!!!!!Hey, and don’t forget to check out our videos and podcasts!!!!!!!

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The Petri Dish

You know, I had to look up the spelling of “Petri”.  I don’t think I have even said that word since Advanced Biology class in High School where I decided I did NOT want to be a doctor!  Anyway, like a bolt of lightening, as I was writing yesterday’s blog entry, it occurred to me that Luis and I together are like “One”.  Yup, like ONE GIANT INTER-CULTURAL PETRI DISH!

We love sharing with our students the insights we have about the other’s culture that occur to us in the process of being together.   After all, this is gold to them right?  We can share things that we know first hand that will give them a really valuable jump on the nuances between the cultures which will in all likelihood help them learn the language faster and have more fun on their next trip to their Spanish speaking destination.  (you get the folly here, right?) And while those things that we are able to share with them are interesting, they are probably far less interesting than the things that we despite ourselves and awareness,  inadvertently show them in all their glory and technicolor detail.  EWWWWW.  Kinda embarrassing really. 

Here we are, totally crazy for one another, doing what we love to do and excitedly passing on our ‘expertise’ to our students but the joke is on us.  We are standing there “naked” so to speak and the students can clearly see that what we talk about is not nearly to the point as how we are with one another.

As a result of this no doubt partial insight, I have created the category “The Petri Dish” where Luis and I will talk about the dynamics between us.  That is when we are able to get perspective on them.   To recognize them.  This is different you understand than our commentary about things external to us.  We may talk about our conversations or opinions or our particular epistemologies and how they are similar or different, but “The Petri Dish” is more about the invisibly obvious.  How those opinions and epistemologies play out in their delightfully self-referential ways, more often than not, while we are completely and utterly oblivious to them.   It’s our ability to have access to these dynamic after all that make or break everything from parental-child relationships, to marriages, to for heavens sake, foreign policy! 

In fact you all can help us with this.  It will be easier for those who know us personally at first, but over time, you all will have a good idea through these blogs and through our on-line video program who Luis and Joan really are.  We would be interested in your observations (gently of course) about what you see as our success or challenges in blending our  respective cultural history’s and identities together.  I think this has potential for all of us to hone a sharper ability to break the codes between us that are simultaneously expressed by and created/reinforced through, our native languages.

Ooooo, this sounds both fun and scary.   Hmmmm, welcome to my life!

Ciao por ahora…….   -Joan

!!!!!!Hey, and don’t forget to check out our videos and podcasts!!!!!!!

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I love Lucy, ah I mean Joannie….

What a day it was yesterday!  As no doubt you have heard, (since there is a thin veil between our life and yours, but more on ‘How much is too much information’, later), that, Luis and I will be launching our new on-line video project soon, like we hope tomorrow but maybe not until Thursday or Friday…..we’ll see.  There are a couple of key but routine pieces in the hands of others at this moment so it depends on how things go for them.  Anyway, to a certain degree it is always a pressure cooker at our house (more on that later too), but recently, like in the last few weeks and even more, in the last few days or better said, in the last few hours, it has been worse.  Nothing grave, just looming deadlines having to do with classes starting again next week and the on-line video project about to launch.   The majority of these deadlines are self imposed and the remaining few have to do with just the rhythm and ironies of life (more on that later as well).   But how we find ourselves in these stews is not the subject of this day’s entry, rather how we respond once we are there, is.

We turn into, no lie, Lucy and Ricky from “I Love Lucy” (did they have a last name in the show?).  Only it’s a bit more complicated than that, because Luis and I both speak the other’s language.  Remember, Lucy did not speak Spanish. 

Here’s what happens.  We are moving along just fine until we hit the ‘hot button’ which honestly never has to do with the two of us…..rather is has to do with something we are feeling passionate about and for which we feel the passionate need to get our point across passionately to the other person.   So you get the picture that the room is nearly suffocating with surging hormones. And what adds complication is that we can never really identify in the moment after, if we had just been speaking English or Spanish.  We go back and forth between the two all day long and haven’t really figured out what might trigger us to switch……but anyway, there we are. 

One of us begins to explain our position in the language of the moment and the other says “what? or ¿Como, como?”  (where I frankly believe the one “como” would have been sufficient) and we are off.  Suddenly and inexplicably we have hit the DNA part of the cell where a particular language has taken up residence.  Luis, (or I, to be fair), will begin to express our strongly felt position in one language or the other.  Now even though Luis may be telling me in English or I may be telling him in Spanish, the fact that we are feeling something strongly seems to mess up the circuits.  His English is as good as my Spanish but suddenly his English is not making any sense to me so I switch to Spanish to get a better understanding and once I have the meaning and I am feeling all urgent about the my response to him and try to continue in Spanish, I can tell by the look on his amazingly exotic mug that suddenly I am making no sense to him!  So then he switches to English but by this time his English is sounding like a lost dialect from another planet and my Spanish is sounding like a different dialect from another lost planet so we both go back to our native languages.  He speaks to me in Spanish which I understand completely and I speak English to him which he understands clear as a bell.   Only, hilariously we find ourselves doing what many people do when up against someone who doesn’t speak their language but want to be understood.  We speak louder, more slowly and enunciate meticulously.  Though I don’t think that the little added drama is necessary, the point is that we are finally making a connection.  In fact we were having one of  ‘these’ while this guy was in our house laying ceramic tile and he just burst out laughing.  “That’s hilarious!” he said; “You’re speaking English and he is speaking Spanish and the two of you understand one another perfectly.  I think I get what you are talking about, but I am not completely sure.”   To be perfectly honest, we were hoping he didn’t understand, but this goes to the ‘thin veil’ I mentioned earlier and I promise, more on that later.

So in the end, just like Ricky, when he finds himself filled to the brim with emotion, the ‘learned language’ just can’t handle the stress and he is forced to fall back on reliable infrastructure which is that, that was so carefully and specifically nurtured from our pre-verbal days.

Luis is fond of telling his students that they need to take the language inside themselves and “feel it”.  Next term they will be hearing, “feel it pre-verbally”.

(I just read this entry to him and he laughed in recognition of our dynamic and then he said;  “Hey, aren’t I supposed to be writing these things (read Blogs) too?”  uh-oh)

Hasta luego…..  -Joan

!!!!!!Hey, and don’t forget to check out our videos and podcasts!!!!!!!

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¿Dónde está el corazón hispano?

You can imagine the conversations Luis and I have about, well any number of things, but right now, about the primaries;   more specifically the interface between the candidates and the hispanic voters.  The presidential candidates recognize hispanics as a worthy demographic to win, which at this juncture, could tip the coronation for the democratic nomination toward Barack or toward Hillary.  So the question is this;  Where is the heart of the Hispanic? 

I immediately said…..”Well, given that the Hispanic society tends to be a matriarcal society, it leans toward Hillary.”  Luis said;  “Perhaps a generation ago this tradition would hold sway, but not so much today.”   Then he began to talk about how Hispanics tend to be piqued first through emotion rather than reason.  Not that reason doesn’t have it’s place.  It does, absolutely.  But if one wants entry into the Hispanic heart, one needs to speak to their heart. 

Joan;  “And what does their heart say?”  Luis;  “It says; our hearts are with our own countries and we would be there now if the economic and political situations were better.  It is with our families that remain there.  We want to maintain our contact and ties to our families and our heritage.  We love the US, we respect the US and it’s ways of life and opportunities.  But we wouldn’t have looked in the direction of the US, there would have been no reason to look in this direction, if our countries were able to offer us what the US is able to offer it’s citizens.  The US offers hope that our dreams too, can come true.”

Hmmm, I thought.  I was a little insulted at first and then I realized that I would feel the same.  If my country could not offer me the promise that my dreams could come true here and I was compelled to look outside of the US for this to happen, well the truth is, I would!  But it is also true, that as much as I perhaps felt that my country had let me down, I would still love it.  It is the US that would hold my heart.  I would hope that someday my country could support my dreams so that I could at the very least consider returning.  I would miss my music, my food, my family, my language, my cultures way of seeing the world.  At the same time, I would be so incredibly grateful that there was a way for me to be a welcomed part of this new land of opportunity and I would want to contribute in whatever way I could to the that society as well.   There would be many collisions of feelings and realty. 

I am interested to see how Barack and Hillary address this issue, unspoken but at the heart of finding the heart of the Hispanics tonight during their debate which will be broadcasted through CNN and UNIVISION.  Let’s watch it together and comment tomorrow on what we saw and heard and think.  Where is the heart of the Hispanic?

To prime the pump a bit first, I have included a link to a couple of interviews that UNIVISION did with Barack and Hillary.  Enjoy!    Saludos, Joan

!!!!!!Hey, and don’t forget to check out our videos and podcasts!!!!!!!

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I hate my voice…

This is what I heard Luis say dozens of times when he first began his Podcasts a year ago and this is what I find myself telling him now that I hear MY voice in the videos.  This time next week, we expect our on-line video program to be live and available and so as we spend the last feverish days prior to this important launch, fine tuning countless details, I find myself very self-critical. 

This morning I was telling Luis that I don´t think anyone wants to hear me speaking Spanish, they want to hear HIM speaking Spanish.  Well, that was enough to catapult my little Latino into a tirad “Luis style”….which is strong but incredibly tender, supportive and inspirational.  He told me that in his 25 plus years teaching Spanish as an independent contractor, first in his native Peru and for the last 4 years here in the States, he has had the opportunity to teach students from Canada, Australia and  from all over Europe as well as the United States.  He said that he will make his observation cautiously, knowing that generaliziations always miss the ‘outlyers’ but that he found some rather predictable differences between his students from the US and those from other areas of the world.

He said that students from the US “tend” in “his experience” (no doubt in his mind, being well illustrated by my concerns) to be incredibly self-critical when it comes to language learning.  They tend to want to know the ‘rules’ and ‘formulas’, be frustrated by the ‘exceptions’ to these and are hesitant to speak until they believe they have figured out the absolute correct way to say something.  “Self-conscious” learners, he calls them, which he says really gets in the way of the great fun and the progress they could have and make in the language. 

He said that non-US students tended to have a more adventurous and openly curious approach to language learning that allows them the room to just “jump” (one of Luis’ favorite words) and “go for it”.  The point after all is to give and receive information, to communicate.  If you’ve been able to do that, then the rest will correct itself over time and attention and while that is happening, you are having a great time building relationships with people whom which you couldn’t before and learning about things to which you could have no access other than through the language.  An adventure!  Fun!  Expanding!  Enlightening!  Why would one deny themselves these treasures, my hero wants to know.

He finished his lecture with,  “Of course you have a bit of an accent and of course you don’t say everything perfectly, but that is part of the journey.  Our students share this journey with you and it’s about time you looked at the beautiful scenery and really tasted the complexity of that wine and allowed your body to move to that new music in a way that it’s called to.  It’s magical, it’s fantastic, it’s NOT perfect,  (thank goodness, how boreing), so let’s have a great time!”

Well, once again he left me speechless.  I regularly deny myself the treasures that are now available to me as a result of learning Spanish in my attempt to be and sound perfect.  I can see the folly in this after each of these tantrums (aunque suave, tranquilo)  and vow to see and be different.  As you watch our videos you will see that we are a simple multi-cultural couple, crazy about each other and passionate about helping people relax and have fun learning Spanish.  We are not intimidating or self-celebrated experts, we are just like you, looking for ways to understand more so that we can enjoy and appreciate more the treasures that lie locked behind another’s language.  We are on an adventure that may not be “perfect” but does not lack in value or benefit or great, crazy fun!

Hasta la proxima…….  -Joan

!!!!!!Hey, and don’t forget to check out our videos and podcasts!!!!!!!


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Where to begin….

Luis and I will try to keep these entries short, frequent and specific enough so that they generate reflexion and comments from you all.  On this topic, let me just iterate that the purpose of this blog is to create dialog between you all with each other and you all with us about your journey in learning Spanish.  There will grammar to fine tune and expressions to learn, seemingly endlessly, but those are the mechanics of learning a language.  We are more interested in talking about the eurika moments.  That fluid conversation you had with that native speaker when you were feeling it.  When you were making a point and making it impressively and easily and you could see the impact your command of the language was having on the native speaker.  Yes, yes, we know these moments come and go, but that is the nature of assimilation.  Bit by bit, piece by piece the language finds it’s home in you and has it’s way with you at the same time.  Chipping, chipping away at who you used to be and how you used to see.  Ooooo, this is the good stuff.  You remain you, but transformed into a more fluid you.  Notice, I did not use the word ‘fluent’, rather, ‘fluid’.  You are able to almost metaphysically step through some cultural thing that previously had been the distinction between you and the other.  And the key that unlocked it all was that eurika moment in the language.  Language can indeed be a key. 

For those of you who don’t know what I am talking about yet, stick with it and you will.  I remember yearning for that eurika moment, and for another and another after that, once I had my first.  It felt like a really good yawn or stretch after being in the same position for an eternity.  It was so exhilerating and freeing and satisfying.   There are many of you who have experienced this and know what I am talking about.  And you know as well, that as mysteriously as it appeared, this dematerializing wall that a moment ago you so fluidly walked right on through,  as suddenly became a solid hunk of matter once again with no sign of it’s former yielding. 

So tell us about a time when you walked through that wall and tell us about another time when you thought you knew where that wall would give and it just stood there 4 feet thick with no entry in sight.  Let’s talk about this mysterious, magical thing called acculturation through language.

Hasta luego…….    -Joan

!!!!!!Hey, and don’t forget to check out our videos and podcasts!!!!!!!

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