Tag Archives: community of spanish language learners

Me gusta acostarme con mis estudiantes – I Like to Couch My Students

You didn´t think I was going to leave that last post at that did you?  Really?  How long have you been reading my Blogs?  Oh, nooooo, now it´s ‘balance the books’ time.

So I am with Luis in front of a rather large gathering of prospective students that we have just served a couple of glasses of wine.  We used to have “Free Sample Classes con Piqueo” to attract potential students … but when one class brought in a guy with a gun in his boot who was considering classes so that he could “get” the Surenos (Latino Gang) that had killed his son in a gang related dispute and we had a hard time getting him out of our house cause he was crying so hard, and another guy straight from Moldova (honest to goodness, this is a country, check your map of the Soviet Union) looking like the folks wardrobed for Shindlers List who when he moved through our house changed everything from color to black and white and who stopped half way down our spiral staircase and broke out in Italian Opera, and about 15 other groups who came with their friends for an afternoon of free food and wine sort of like the way people go to those posh weekends for the cost of listening to the Time Share pitch but have absolutely NO intention of taking classes…..we quite having them…..the Free Sample Classes with Piqueo I mean.

So anyway, we have the formal Sample class behind us, we are into the Piqueo (Peruvian term for appetisers or small bites) and are on our second bottle of wine.  Things are getting more relaxed and we can tell these people feel comfortable, maybe even like us.  We are just chatting informally and then one of them asks Luis to sum up in a nut shell, his teaching philosophy.  He looks up, thinks.  Looks to the side, thinks some more.  Looks down and I am getting irritated…..okay, ‘we get that you are reflecting…..what already?  Give us the d… philosophy in a whatever kinda shell!’

The moment finally seems right and he says;  “I Like to couch my students just like my parents couched me.”

If  it’s possible to feel such a thing …. I felt my face go white.  There is this distinct sensation of a color drain beginning with the follicles of my crown and continuing in even levels down to my freshly painted toe nails. 

Well, you can imagine, the half drunk potential students looked to ME for clarification and reassurance and the truth is, I was not in a position to give it to them.  I was as stunned as they were. 

When Luis gets talking, it takes a while for him to take a breath and so he was paddling on while we were all battling the images that were invading our alcohol tenderized brains …. until one of our guests, who had caught enough of his exhaustive explanation to be able to deduce what he had meant to say…..  if I remember right, she was a Minneapolis Police Officer.

“Oh, you mean COACH your students,  you COACH them.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said, couch.”

Well, needless to say, we didn’t get any new students that time either.                        Aquí estamos,  Joan

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Filed under Learning Attitude, Of Some Things Human, The Petri Dish

¿Tienes tu pene? – Do You Have Your Penis?

No, No!  This is not an X rated Blog!  This is an honest Blog about the rough and rocky road that one must take in order to learn another´s language.

When I asked Luis this question he whirled around and looked at me with a combination of horror and true confusion.  I could see his mouth in mid-answer ….. “ye….s”  but he didn´t quite give it to me, his face was not, shall we say…it was not in concordance.  This of course had me confused and I insisted….”Siempre te olivdas tu pene y cuando llegamos al carro tu me preguntas si yo lo tengo.”  (You are always forgetting your penis and when we get to the car you ask me if I have it.) 

By now the horror on his face is complete, the confusion has just left altogether.

Let me allow you into the deep labyrinths of my psych for just a moment.  Don’t worry, it’s just for a quick second, just to help you understand what was happening with me as I demanded a serious answer to my question.  You see, it´s exhausting being married to my Spanish teacher.  He lets nothing pass, I always (it seems)  have one little thing wrong, be it an ‘a’ instead of an ‘o’, or a ‘this tense’ over a ‘that tense’ or my pronunciation is messed up and I have to repeat until I sound more “native” at which point I can’t even remember what I was trying to say….. and to be honest I think this one is about not wanting to hear what I was trying to say……and THIS is what had the death hold on me when I was challenging him in so many words with, “it’s 8 PM do you know where your penis is?”

I had decided that I was going to insist this time.  I was not going to let him get me off track with all of his infuriating corrections. I was saying everything right, doggone it and I was going to insist that he understand me.  Now where I ever came up with the idea that this technique would work as well with a language as it did when I successfully returned that pair of pants I bought too small the day before they went on sale and could no longer be returned….is somewhere deep in that psych you guys are now privileged to.

Anyway, he breaks away from Spanish….I hate when he does that with me …. it’s just another way to castigate me (careful, careful) for my Spanish.  He says;  “You have to tell me what you just said again, but please honey, you look so beautiful tonight, I love your eyes…blah, blah, blah….tell me in English.” 

Yeah I know, the sweet talk gets me every time.  Geese, give me a break, at 50 whatever, my days are numbered for these types of adorations….I buckle.  I say;  “I saaaiiiidddddd……DO……YOU……..HAVE……..YOUR……..COOOOMMB?

He loses it.  He starts laughing and can not get control.  I have already lost mine as well and so this is not a pretty moment for us.  I hear the neighborhood go suddenly silent….I know that without a doubt that Mrs. Hill down the street is completely motionless, just straining so as not to miss a single sylable that’s to follow.

“Honey, amor, bebé es PEINE, no PENE.  Peine es comb, pene es penis.

Grrrrr  %&$#”                                                                                  Aquí estamos,   Joan


Filed under Learning Attitude, Of Some Things Human, The Petri Dish

¡Vayase! – Get outta here!

So we are in Buenos Aires about 2 years ago, Luis and I.  Reluctantly I brought him along on a trip that I arrange to get CEU hours for the renewal of my Psychology license.  He wasn´t invited initially mind you.  I wanted to do this on my own. 

The idea was to improve the Spanish I used at work.  I was already good at chatting it up casually with a native Spanish speaker, I could talk about the day´s news or what I thought would or could happen if something else occurred…I could even expound upon what the future held should you decide to embrace it.  Subjunctiveville.  I owned the town. 

But I was still missing two things critical to my practicing psychology effectively with the Spanish speaker.  The more obvious of these was  was vocabulary.  You know, how do I say …  Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Features of Anxiety and Depression, Differential Diagnosis of  Trichotillomania, Rule Out Borderline Personality, though this seemed quite straightforward and easy enough to pick up.  The less obvious but more critical thing I was lacking had to do with ‘world view’.   I didn´t quite get what was perceived as a problem and what wasn´t.  What the beliefs were surrounding why particular types of problems occur and what must be done to eradicate them, if it is even seen possible.  Fascinating stuff, but for other entries.  In this one I am wanting to talk about my marriage.

I´m fairly industrious and since all great feats start with nothing more than an idea and I was teeming with those … I figured I was off to a good start.  Idea;  study in Buenos Aires.  The obvious first step was to see if there were any conferences being offered during the time I wanted to go.  This investigation turned up a big fat ‘nada’, but not to go down with at least the appearance of a fight, I called Luis´ brother Dany, who lives in Buenos Aires and asked him who he knew, just to keep the momentum going.  Dany´s a heart doctor and not a head doctor, but I figured he probably has access to all the varieties through a hospital wide staff meeting or something, whatever, he´s sweet and I knew he´d come up with someone.  And he did.  Turns out it was not someone from the hosptial at all, but someone that happened to attend the same church he did.  Good enough.

Yippee, idea is turning into something that promises substance…. this is good.  Next – write letter to ‘head doctor’, (Dany didn’t know his specialty exactly, just knew he dealt with ‘los problemas de la cabeza’), tell him that I got his name from the guy with 4 girls that sits behind him and across the aisle at the 8 30 service at el Iglacia de San Ignacio, check.  Tell him that I want to do a ‘pacentia’ under him, offer some money for his trouble, sit back and wait.  Check, check, check.  Long story short, it’s a Bingo.  Time to buy the plane tickets.

After a long day at work, I come home to Luis jumping up and down.  “¡Habemos tickets!”   Luis, Southern Baptist, knows nothing of the Catholic tradition and found it fascinating when the new Pope was introduced to the world first with a ribbon of smoke from a chimney followed by the proclamation, “HABEMUS PAPA”.  So when ever something is really exciting to him, he takes liberties with the expression.  In this case “¡Habemos tickets!”   Brings to mind potatoes and chili peppers for me but anyway… when I heard him say “Habemos”, I heard the “…mos” part more than the “Habe…” part and knew I was in for the other shoe.  “Honey, I decided I am going too!”  What!?  What happened to all the “…you need to get out there and use the language, you need to take chances, you need to push yourself to the limit ….”?

…….to be continued…….             Joan

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¡PELIGRO! Aprender español va a cambiar tu vida – Danger! Learning Spanish Is Going to Change Your Life

Many of you know from previous posts that Luis and I could not hail from more opposite extremes of cultural tradition.  My very German upbringing and his Latino has been the fodder for more color in our lives together than one could hallucinate after a few Pisco Sours. (actually, any descriptor that occurred to you before you actually read my artfully selected choice, “color”, would work here too)  How many pages is War and Peace or does the Iliad feel like it has? Well, that´s how many stories I have living with Luis – though he tells me he has at least double in ‘Joan’ stories.

Let´s talk color.  If any of you have seen the videos of Luis and I you will note that I am always dressed in some variation of  Black; that is, short sleeves, long sleeves, collar, sans collar, jacket, etc.  I may have thrown in a little grey once, but that is about as adventurous as I get with color unless I am going for maximum impact.  This is when you will see me play fast and loose with contrasts and throw in a blindingly white T.  Really, too much white or white in the wrong place, hurts my eyes. 

Now Luis will often be dressed in Black as well, especially if he is in the frame with me … I don’t usually like being in proximity to color either.  And to innocent voyeurs of these films all probably seems copacetic.  But what has gone on before the actual edited piece you all see is …  hmmm, how shall I put this … at least an hour of intense negotiation. 

Luis dons one shirt after another;  his Yellow, Red, Vibrant Blue, Kelley Green and his Violet.  With each color change, he walks out of the bedroom as though we had not had the discussion only seconds before that he really ought to take himself more seriously and wear one of the several Black shirts I have bought him over the years.  I’m flexible.  Any of them would do.

Scene change.  It’s time to paint our very modern Condo.  I do agree that the nearly all white walls are hideous and some shadow of color is called for.  At first we painted everything a very subtle beige which had a wild yellow undertone, well that is with the exception of one very dramatic long wall that followed the Dining Room into the adjacent Kitchen.  We agreed this crazy wall would wear a deep bricky red.  Don’t cringe, it was the kind of red that works well with hints of yellow.   But much to my astonishment, I warmed up to this color kick so much that in contrast, suddenly it seemed that the beige laid on the walls like a serious case of jaundice.

Too many unsuccessful trips to the paint store and enough nearly full cans of paint in our garage that we would could have been mistaken for the annex to our local Benjamin Moore led us to call in our good friend and ‘colorist’.  Please!  A colorist?  Desperate times as they say.  Remember I am German, we don’t call in ‘colorists’.  In fact I don’t recall ever hearing the word as I grew up.

Michael (of course, you knew it would be the proper of whatever name…) arranges 3 – 2 hours blocks of time with us.  One in the early morning light, one in the afternoon light and one with only artificial light – you know, like lamps and stuff.  Michael is lactose intolerant and if that doesn’t just say it all right there.

He brings in 4 cartons measuring about 3 feet by 2 feet and 1.5 feet deep.  He begins to pull out color “chips” and instructs us to say “yes” or “no” to the colors as he begins to deal them as fast as any Black Jack dealer I’ve seen deal cards in the movies…(remember, Joan is German, we don’t gamble).  The instructions are that we say what first occurs to us,  that we don’t over think it, that we don’t think about what colors goes with what and that we don’t worry if I say one thing and Luis says another.  (Phew, that’s good).  

So this is the way it went for 6 hours in various light conditions and in various rooms of the house.  When it was all said and done, we were handed a very complex color map of the 39 different and distinct colors that make up our freshly painted house.  That was not a typo, 39 is the number I meant to type.  And what’s more, Luis and I love it!

Okay, so it took a little counseling and mediation from a ‘colorist’, but in the end I moved a heck of a long way from Egg Shell and Luis moved a heck of a long from from Primary Colors.   We look around our home now and can see how each of us have really had a very significant impact on how the other now sees their world.  The colors in our home are truly symbolic and a clear outward manifestation of how blended we have become.  In fact we were so excited by what we had created together on the walls, we didn’t stop there …. we ripped the place down to it’s studs and completely rebuilt it.  We selected tile colors and designs for the bathrooms and kitchen influenced by our South American and Spain travels that even resulted in our ’tile guy’ asking us if we would allow him to bring his family through to see what we had forced him to do.

Did I ever think that learning Spanish would lead to my meeting my husband or kissing complete strangers in greeting or sitting close to someone when it wasn’t absolutely necessary?  Nope! We Germans don’t even smile that readily.  But these are some of the very happy secondary gains from my adventure to learn Spanish, an adventure that I embarked upon on a whim some 6 years ago now.  You will indeed continue to see me in Black, but don’t be fooled … there is lots of rich and vibrant color just a scratch below the surface.    Besos,  Joan    P.S.  Here’s a link to our home …..


Filed under Culture, Of Some Things Human

Practíca tu fluidez como un latino – Practice Your Fluency Like a Latino

I am kinda excited about my entry for today.  I was in a therapy session yesterday with one of my clients, from a Spanish speaking country.  She speaks only Spanish and she was was trying to say a word….in Spanish.  I watched her for a while and thought pretty early on in her struggle that I knew the word she was trying to say, but thought, geeze, I am the English speaker here, she can´t possibly be having trouble with the word I think she is trying to say.  So I watched and waited and little longer…and when she had not been able to spit it out for a few long seconds more…I ventured;  “¿Atmósfera?  “Sí.”,  ella me dijo.  “Nunca he podido decir esta palabara.”

Oh my gosh!  Are you kidding me?  A native speaker can have difficulties speaking their own tongue twisting words?  Holy Cow, this was just the best news I´d heard in week!  So many times, it´s me trying to eloquently explain my theory for this or that, or encourage, or motivate or whatever the delicate issue the session calls for, all while tripping around and over the trills and multi-sylabic overly endowed vowel filled words.  Remember, I am shooting for therapeutic credibility here and I´ve worked hard to get everything is in it´s place so that what I am about to say has maximum impact.  So when I go for the big internvention and my tongue goes all flaccid that ‘ah-ha’ moment loses just a little of it´s punch!  Ya know?

Well, I could hardly contain my glee as she repeated after me, sylable by sylable, “At-mós-fe-ra.”  I think when it was all said and done, this session could have been, all things equal, more therapuetic for me than for her!  (notice how this word is divided differently in Spanish, than we would divide it in English…cool, huh?)

Upon reflection later in the day and in talking about this incident with Luis, he reminded me of the day he and Rene, our video editor, were singing songs from their childhood.  As you know Rene is from Venezuela and Luis from Peru, but the songs they learned were identical and both concurred that they had to do with teaching them, as tiny tots, how to find the rhythm and fine-tune the pronunciation of their speech. 

I am going to have them record a couple of these songs and I´ll include them in another entry over the weekend….it´s really pretty hysterical.

This got me thinking about my own childhood and the songs that we were taught from preschool through 3 or 4 grade.  Well, I couldn´t remember any but I know we sang plenty and I suspect the songs were composed and employed for much the same reason.  Of course we had A, B, C song to help us remember our alphabet, there were some counting songs … and though we preferred to sing 99 bottles of beer on the wall, we were directed to sing 99 bottles of pop on the wall….please!  I remember the day I could sing the song from Mary Poppins, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.  that was a red letter day, no doubt!  I remember Dr. Seuss and his “Fox in Sox”.  In fact, I used that book with my kids.  We would read it again and again, faster and faster.  It was great fun and we would laugh a lot, but it also had its linguistic benefits.  I remember feeling my mouth all warmed up and able to speak with greater precision following a session with Dr. Seuss.

Now applying this back to Spanish as a second language.  There is no reason not to believe that as we begin to learn this or any other language, that it is important to find a way to get our tongue and lips the same, well, ethnic work out.  Obviously as a 50 year old, reading a “Fox in Sox” equivalent would fast become mind numbing … but this should not detour us from looking for other, more age appropriate ways to practise this essential skill.  It is a ‘learned’ skill.  Luis did not explode into the world with the ability to say “aeropuerto” o “deslegitimizar” o “polirubro”.  (actually I heard Luis having trouble with the second and third of these just today!  another great moment for me!)  

If we can say it, we can hear it.  And if we practise it we will get better at saying it so that we can be understood, understand better what is being said to us, and just get closer to that all coveted fluency. 

Luis told me this morning, “Honey, (I like how he starts with the endearment), you really need to take advantage of the voice recordings of the articles in La Casa Rojas .  Follow along with the article while you listen to the recording and then try to read it yourself sounding just like the author.”  “But Honey”, I said, “Remember, I am the one who helped MY Spanish speaking client with pronunciation.” 

Of course, this was just my quick defense.  I know he is right and it sent me off thinking about another session I had yesterday with a couple.  The husband found it necessary to repeat everything I said to his wife.  I would say it in Spanish and he would repeat me verbatim in Spanish to his wife.  To HIM she would respond with light in her eyes and a nod of the head….”Ohhhhhhh.”  Oh man!  Poco a poco.    Hasta mañana,  Joan


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Cuando los ánimos se intensifiquen – When Emotions Become Intense

Remember the 50’s show “I Love Lucy”?  Remember how Ricky, from Cuba, would begin to rapid fire Spanish every time he got a little hot under the collar?  Of course the joke was that his Latin blood had predisposed him to go from 0 to 100 in a micro-second but old stereotypes and Lucy´s extraordinary perturbations aside, the aspect of this that fascinates me is that when he was feeling strongly, he automatically switched from his second language, English, to his first, Spanish.

Luis has had students that are ER Nurses, Paramedics, Fire Fighters, Doctors and Police officers, what we refer to as those first responders.  And each of them share like stories about being called upon to respond to a crisis that involves a native speaker of a language other than English.  They explain that  under the pressure of  terror or grief or pain or excitement or relief, their patients reverted to their native language.  They may have known English, but suddenly could not speak it nor understand it.

In fact I had this very experience with Luis.  He’d been here with me in the US, only 3 months when he had a medical emergency.  He had begun to feel pain in his side earlier in the day that only increased in intensity into the evening.  After much resistance from him through out this episode, at midnight and in response to his writhing and speaking only Spanish (I knew very little Spanish at this time), I insisted in taking him to the ER.  Long story short; his appendix burst.  Point of story; he did not speak a word of English from the moment the pain became difficult to bear until he was home 3 days later and resting more or less comfortably after his surgery.  NOT A WORD OF ENGLISH.

Pressure of any kind can trigger a default response and send us reeling back to what was programmed first.  Luis and I live a life that is very busy with multiple simultaneous deadlines and priorities.  Most of the time we are able to coordinate a very complex dance together successfully.  Now and then, we collide.  During these collisions, if they were listening, (oh, man, I hope not!) our neighbors would hear a mix of Spanish and English….Luis in Spanish and me in English.  The discussion would be animated and fluent, but fluent between two languages. 

Once we had a guy in our house putting in ceramic tile when one of these events between Luis and I occurred.  Once we had resolved the issue, I went to get a cup of coffee near where the tile guy was working and he looked at me with this expression of utter amazement and said;  “That was one of the most interesting things I have ever heard.  I totally understood what you were saying and not at all, what Luis was saying but clearly you guys got it all.  Man, that was weird.”

Of course we are all familiar with the phenomenon where we are new in the language and find ourselves in a situation where we need to or want to use it.  Our nerves get the best of us and the only words we can retrieve are taken from our native dictionary. 

Okay, so heightened emotions of any kind bring us back to our roots.  But how are ‘roots’ defined exactly.  Consider this poignant story.  Luis as a child became friends with the daughter of missionaries who had come to his church in Peru.  He was about 7 or 8 years old, so was she.  She only knew English when she moved to Peru but learned Spanish quickly and spoke mostly Spanish until she left Peru for the States at about age 11 or 12.  She did not return to Peru again and used her Spanish only occasionally in her life in Portland OR.  Now fast forward 30 years.  THIRTY YEARS.  She was diagnosed with brain cancer and spent just a few short months more on this earth. 

Luis called her 3 weeks or so before she died.  They hadn’t talked with one another for 30 years and yet each had made an impact on the other such that this contact so many years later brought them rushing back in time.  It was as though they’d never been apart.  Luis started out in English, she in Spanish.  He switched to Spanish and they talked for more than an hour.  At the end of the conversation she thanked him.  Told him that speaking in Spanish had satiated her, brought her a sensation of being ‘home’ again, provided a sense of wholeness and relief.  He told me that her Spanish was impeccable, complete with the accent and cadence of the region in which she had lived in Peru.

Can we call up an emotion and with it the language in which we experienced it?  In this case perhaps Luis’ friend was surrendering to those happy moments in her childhood when she and he had played together.  Her life was lived in Spanish then.  Yes, her first language was English and she only spent 4 years living in Spanish after which the next 30 years were lived again in English.  Yet, when she was confronted with an emotion filled memory of those years in Spanish, only Spanish would due, washing over her with peace.  And her Spanish was perfect, “Como una limeña.”

Emotional context has power.  It´s real and raw and has deep and mysterious roots.  Luis and I talk about context a lot when speaking about what brings a language to life and helps one internalize it as their own.  It´s a risky business to be sure, whether you expose yourself to a real person speaking about real things from their heart in their native tongue, or whether you challenge yourself to experiences in your new language, the emotional component on each side yields power like no text book ever will.  Expose yourself to real people, talking about real things.  Challenge yourself to real experiences.  You do these two things and you´ll weaken your excuse that you can´t learn because you have a lousy memory!    Sigamos adelante,  Joan    La Casa Rojas – the magazine


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Filed under La Casa Rojas - On-line Magazine, Learning Attitude, Of Some Things Human

Aprender español es como enamorarse – Learning Spanish is Like Falling In Love

It hits us without warning and really quite out of the blue… our heart races at the thought of it, our pupils dilate, our thoughts obsess with desire.  We imagine whole worlds opening up before us, yielding access to exotic people and adventure. 

We attend our first date, I mean class, and we are not disappointed; rather hopeful, excited even as we picture ourselves tucked away at some great café in a little seaside pueblo, eating ethnic delicacies while discussing art and philosophy with really interesting people.  Our fantasy continues for about 6 or 8 more classes but then our romantic illusions begin to be fade … the reality of the long hard road we must take to reach that pueblo and café and new found friends tempts us to believe we´ve fallen victim to silly romantic folly and nothing more.  That there is just no way before middle age or retirement or before we die, we´re going to be able to gain the skills necessary to comfortably and independently make our way in this new language. 

BUT  –  just like we have to care for and nuture our relationship with our new love if we want it to go anywhere, we must care for and nurture our dream to speak another language if we really want to make a life with it.  All work and no play – not fun, nor productive. Textbooks have their place, and so does bringing home the bacon, but textbooks and bacon alone do not garantee a happy-ever-after ending.  We need to find ways to feed that original passion to keep it alive if we are to live our adventure to it’s fullest potential.

For me this meant searching the Internet for stuff to read that interested me. Armed with my dictionary, it would take me literally hours to get through an article.  But I stuck with it cause I wanted the information.  In order to understand the information, I had to be able to understand what I was reading …. so the carrot to learn? …. interesting information.  

So do what it takes….travel, read, listen to music, but keep that dream alive.  What is it they say?  ‘No one looked back on their life and wish they had worked more!’   If we only worked as hard on keeping the romance alive as we did on our verb tenses.      Joan, Editor in Chief, La Casa Rojas

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