I get this question all the time…..even from my native Spanish speaking clients at the MH clinic where I put in a few hours a week. “How or where did you learn Spanish?”
Now when I tell people (if they didn’t already know) that my husband is Peruvian and a Spanish Language Instructor, they immediately go ……….¡Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, por eso! and to be honest, I use this answer a lot because the real one takes too much time to explain. Not because it´s complicated, more because it´s not a reason that is easily absorbed on the first or even the 15th telling.
I don´t blame people who dismiss my abilites to speak Spanish as something that came easily and somehow seamlessly comingled in the words “I do.” I let them, even my native speaking clients and friends and associates go on believing that this is a conjugal perk.
The people that don´t fall so easily into this fantasy are those that are dating or married to a native Spanish speaker and can´t somehow get that osmosis thing to kick in. I´m being sarcastic here…. because of course any fantasy they had evaporated within a week of dating. There is that moment when suddenly it becomes apparent that speaking Spanish is not going to come any easier through sharing a bathroom. Those university students that live in the “Spanish House” or those that travel to exotic ports-of-call to “study abroad”, also get that eating together, sleeping in proximity and squeezing the same tube of paste does not equate to “speak Spanish”.
I’m rather known for my long introductions, so let me get to the meat of things here. What is the real answer to “How did you learn Spanish?”
Well, I can´t deny that I used Luis as a resource. I did. But I can count the number of classes I took from him on a hand and a half over the 7 years we have known one another. The truth is simple and complicated at the same time; I exposed myself to the language through print and through audio. I am not talking about the Learn Spanish textbooks or those silly ‘listen while going to work tapes’ that have made a company or two wildly wealthy …. you know, fantasy sells….those were a bust. I even tried studying in a Spanish speaking country, hoping that proximity or the water would do the trick … that also was a bust.
No, I read Spanish language newspapers, magazines and I listened to Spanish language talk shows on the radio and on TV. When I had a question, when I just couldn’t even with the help of my on-line dictionary make sense of something, I would bring it to Luis and say….”what the h?” When I had no other way to hear how it would sound if it were spoken, I asked Luis to read to me while I followed along. That’s what I mean, Luis has been more my walking talking reference tool that I access on demand rather than the person from which all knowledge flowed into my empty eager vessel.
I give an answer when pushed but the truth is fluency is a rather vaporous term. Never-the-less when someone presses….”Well, how long did it take?” “Huh? How long did what take?”, I mock back in my stall technique intended to dodge the question. “How long did it take for you to ‘become fluent’?” (“Become fluent”….that’s the subject of another post….) “Well under two years,” I venture and then wait for the reaction. Those that have been studying typically say…”Oh my gosh, you’re one of those people to whom language comes easily, that’s amazing.” Those that haven’t begun to learn yet tend to say something along the line of, “Wow, it takes that long?”
Now I am not saying ‘under two years’ is lightening speed….there are those that truly do have the ‘gift of language’ and seem to pick up the math a lot quicker than I did. And there is that pesky little detail about the exact definition of “fluent”. I have heard some say that they are fluent and it is true that there are really, lots of levels of fluency. Can you order dinner and understand what you are being prompted to respond by the waiter? If you can, I suppose you could consider yourself fluent in ordering dinner….and on up the hierarchy of situational fluency, you get the idea. Maybe you can understand a Peruvian from Lima 60% of the time but not a Chilean from Santiago de Chile. Maybe you can ‘understand more that you can speak’, yeah, we can slice this flan in a million ways.
But back to how did I learn and let me now add, how much do I know? I learned by exposing myself to the language every single day (yes every single day) with INTENTION TO LEARN, a critical qualification. That is, armed with my online dictionary, I would read and look up, read and look up, read and see if I could deduce and then I would look up word, after word, after word. I started withNews because I knew when I listened that same day to a Spanish language news channel, I would be hearing the same news items. Being already familiar with the story, I’d be in a better position to recognize it when I heard it….well accompanied by the visual cues and it pushed me forward because I was hearing what I had read earlier, sounds in the mouth of a native speaker. I could hear how a particular phrase is used and enunciated and inflected. All of these nuances helped me enormously in assimilating the ‘language perspective’. As you know, when we read another language, we tend to read it as it would sound in our own language and so leaping from reading or writing to understanding and speaking can be quite the long jump. We just simply don’t recognize it in sound they way we can in print.
I won’t lie to you. Learn at first was tedious, it was beyond hard, it took dedication and Luis remembers (poor thing) even better than I how crabby it made me sometimes. I wanted so much to just speak and to just understand…but one doesn’t find ones self summitting without the climb.
So that’s how it would go, day after day after day…which by the way, continues today. I have graduated though, I have gone from News, which tends to be rather formulaic, to more creative epressions of the language. But short of reading a novel or a gossip magazine, I was hard pressed to find articles that interested me, much less articles that came from a variety of people and places, much less an article that I could read and listen to. It was taking more and more work to find material that captured me and kept me developing and growing in the language and in my knowledge of the various cultures where Spanish is spoken. I also wanted to listen to a variety of accents and ‘ways of speaking’. I didn’t want to find myself able to understand a Mexican from Mexico City, but not a Spañard from Barcelona. Like I said, I INTENDED TO learn Spanish and so I knew that my exposure to the language would have to inlcude as many of it´s variations that I could get my hands on.
Oh, and the answer to the other question….”….how much do I know?”
Never as much as I want to know is the best answer to that question. There always seems to be a new turn of phrase or word or cultural nuance or custom or historical influence or policatical reality or cuisine or…gosh, you name it. It’s endless. It’s wonderful.
So how am I going about keep pushing myself forward in a way that interests me and challenges me? Well, I came up with this idea of developing an online magazine. I thought well, it would be easily accessible, I am always on or near my computer. And if Icould get people from a variety of walks of life representing every single corner of every single Spanish speaking country writing for me and recording their article in downloadable audio files so that I could take the time to look up what I didn’t get while reading the article, and then take it with me in audio so that I could listen to it again and again to familiarize myself with the accent and cadence and way of speaking…..if I could ask these writers to talk about real stuff, stuff that I wouldn’t find in even a travel magazine …. I thought, yeah, that’ll do it. Yeah, I think I will start a magazine………… – Joan, Editor in Chief, La Casa Rojas – the magazine