Sunday, November 15, 2009

Looks Can Be Deceiving

When I go into a Latin restaurant or grocery store, I always hope I will be addressed in Spanish, as if everyone could read my bilingual mind but of course why should that happen when I look so "gringa".  In the past I have initiated transactions in Spanish in an attempt to determine the language to be used but my appearance can cause interference and often prompts switching to English on the part of my interlocutor.  Starting in Spanish seemed preferable in that I could have a better chance at controling the language and discouraging the use of English.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.  I know that these types of interactions are complex.  What language is used depends on many factors.  I often assume the other person is bilingual because of the demographics of my town but the reverse in never true.  On the contrary, because of the way I look, the burden of proof that I can hold my own in Spanish is on me.  My current strategy is to not force the issue and respond in the same language that I am addressed in.  If it is Spanish, good for me.  If it is in English, I've learned to let it go because most of the time the quality of the "practice" is not worth it, although that's not the point.

I've had many bilingual encounters over the years where language choice was affected by how I and other Spanish-speakers perceived my identity.  Below are some stories about similiar situations I found myself in a few months ago.
My husband asked me to pick up some prepared food for us to share from a local Latin grocery store I go to from time to time.  When I got there I called him on my cell to let him know what was available that day.  I may have spoken to him in Spanish (he's Colombian), but I know I ordered in Spanish.  At the end of the counter, just a few steps from me, was another customer, a woman, observing our interaction.  I moved closer to where she was to pay at the register and she said in unaccented American English:  "I never would have thought you spoke Spanish!"  For once, I took it in stride and told her that I get that comment a lot. We chatted briefly.  Are you Puerto Rican? Yes, from New York, she said, but English is my first language.  Sensing her openness, I told her I was born here in the U.S. too but that I was half-Cuban, partly in an effort to signal membership as a potential heritage speaker.  Of course, it's also a bit of a joke, because I was born in Miami.  She didn't question my comment; she apparently believed it.  My intention was to see if that was possible from her point of view given my accent, fluency and appearance but at the same time to recast those skills as belonging to someone whose family spoke Spanish rather than having learned the language detached from that experience.  In my case I identify more with the former than the latter because of how I acquired it and so, sometimes in trying to express my unique and complex relationship with the language, I find it easier to try to position myself in a conversation as a legitimate speaker.  That's what I chose to do in the exchange described below.

I had already ordered food from the Colombian restaurant where I have a very cordial relationship with the owners and their family.  When I arrived another customer was at the counter to pick up her order.  As she reached for the bag in front of her, the owner's mom who worked there told her in Spanish, that's for Anita (me) and went on to explain that there had been a mix-up and her order wasn't ready yet.  The lady turned to me and translated what was just said in English, probably to be polite.  I responded in Spanish saying that I had understood everything.  The mom quickly added, as she walked to the back of the restaurant, that I was a teacher and spoke the language very well,  implying that was the reason I knew Spanish.  I could see she was constructing an identity for me based on this information, and her previous experiences with others who seem like me:  gringa-studies-goes-abroad-learns-to-speak-becomes-teacher. A disinterested 'ohhh' was the reaction.  Since that categorization does not wholly represent who I am, I decided to offer an alternate identity and represent myself as a heritage speaker.  I told her I was half-Cuban. Again, not to try to be what I'm not but to attempt to explain my background in just a few words and in a way that could make the most sense.  I still got the same reaction; I don't think she cared about any of this.  Although she didn't question my comment I wish she had because then I would know to what extent it was credible.  I had a  temporary satisfaction of finding a sort of niche for myself, nonetheless, I am left with the uneasy feeling of knowing that I continue struggling to come to terms with my identity whether it is of my own making, or one given to me by others.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Spanish Major and Professions

When I decided to major in Spanish, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, so the path to my chosen profession was pretty clear-cut.  The information about what was required to get certified and the courses needed to get there were readily available.  Some of my classmates, as well as people I meet today online, are not too keen on teaching and hope to use their degree in some other career.  If they know what that is, they may be more likely to have a double major or to take courses in that field to prepare themselves not only out of interest in that area but also because they realize that another language is only a tool to assist them in doing something else.  I think sometimes we language oriented people lose sight of this fact.  Assuming that upon graduation a student is proficient enough to do an entry-level job in a given field, what would this be?  It is highly unlikely that he will be hired just for having some bilingual skills (much less in an area with a bilingual population) without some other skill or background knowledge.  Just take a look on any jobs web site and do a search with the word Spanish or bilingual and you will see that the listings are for particular jobs or professions. If a student does get such a position that requires bilingual abilities , he will need language skills in all the modalities (listening, speaking, reading and writing).  Unfortunately, most university programs focus on literature and little on practical professional skills such as business writing.  A student interested in expanding his linguistic repertoire would be better off in a college that offers a variety of language courses for the professions-for example:  Spanish for Business, Spanish for Medical Professionals, Legal Spanish, etc. 
If a Spanish major has his heart set on a language-oriented career other than teaching which usually means translation and interpretation, he should be realistic about the work involved in reaching the high levels of proficiency needed for this field, which are way beyond what is required for teachers and usually attained in a university program.  He would do well to find an undergraduate, and subsequently, a graduate program in translation or interpretation.  There he would obtain the skills needed to be successful in this career and eventually certification from ATA (American Translators Association).
There may be some undergraduate degree or certificate programs in translation but most are graduate-level and usually require very high levels of proficiency in the native and target languages.  What's more, translators and interpreters usually specialize in a particular field such as medical, legal, business, real estate, etc.  And while dictionaries are consulted, it helps to understand the underlying concepts of that field because it is never simply words or terms that are translated but rather ideas, and being familiar with them would assist a translator more than if he weren't familiar with them.
These are just a few things to keep in mind when considering how Spanish could be part of a future career.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How Good Is Your Spanish?

     How do you answer this question?  Many people think that if you don't hesitate and your accent isn't obviously foreign, then you speak the language well.  This is only one facet of overall proficiency, the one on the surface that gets everyone's attention as a marker of being able to use the language.  But this can be quite subjective.  You may say something meaningful but the native speaker listening to you may focus only on your pronunciation flaws.  Likewise, you may say hardly anything at all.  Maybe your "Hi , how are you?" has a near perfect accent, native-like flow and  you could be told you speak wonderfully.  However, for us language educators we think about proficiency as a continuum and look not just at aspects like these but more at what a speaker can do with the language in broader terms.

     There are a couple of scales that describe different levels of proficiency that are used in the United States.  The government has their own- the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) scale which is basically used to test their own personnel, for example people who wil be going to fill a post overseas and need to use the language of the host country at a high level or in a professional capacity.  This scale goes from 0 (no functional ability) to 5 (highly educated and articulate native speaker).  See the speaking descriptions here.
This scale is appropriate for its applications used by the government, however since it includes much higher levels of language than are typically achieved by students in formal settings, in academia, the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) guidelines are more commonly used.

     The ACTFL guidelines' major levels go from Novice to Superior and these correspond with the ILR scale's 0-3.  See the descriptions here.  There is something very important to keep in mind when reading these descriptions and that is text type.  For example, novice speakers can only used memorized phrases    intermediate speakers speak at sentence level and advanced speakers can communicate in cohesive paragraphs. Superior level speakers can handle extended discourse.  Advanced-Low is the minimum level required for teacher certification in commonly taught languages in some states.  These guidelines are applied through an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) with a certified tester.  The OPI measures global proficiency and takes the form of a conversation but there are no pre-set questions.  Topics are determined by the interviewee's background, experiences and level as the interview progresses.

   I first read the guidelines when they were new in the 80's, in a textbook for learning to teach Spanish.  They since have been revised, but at the time, I got the idea from reading them that if you knew all the grammar and could use it spontaneously in conversation then, you were at Superior.  But that didn't take into account text type, so you could be able to say sentences like "si no hubiera llovido, habria ido al parque" but if they are not part of a complete, connected story or part of a longer, more complex discussion on abstract topics, then you would only be rated at an Intermediate level.  Likewise, I thought that since Superior was the ultimate level, implying that those speakers made hardly any errors, native speakers would fall into this category. However, when I went through the OPI tester training, I got a more accurate picture of what the guidelines were about.  What was most surprising, as our professor explained, was that in our own language we tend to speak in the Intermediate and Advanced range in our day-to-day conversation.  Granted, the native speaker will have better pronunciation, flow and accuracy than a learner but the text type is sentence and paragraph level.  It's the back and forth, question and answer and anecdote telling of casual speech.  The higher levels are not as common in the average conversation but are rather either more formal or more linguistically complex such as the language of debates or that needed by diplomats. 

     So, if your accent isn't as good as you would like it to be, remember that there is more to using a language than that. Sure your pronunciation shouldn't interfere with someone understanding you but beyond that it's about what you can do with the language -request, express emotion and needs, tell what happened, counsel, persuade, describe, etc. and how well or to what degree of sophistication.  Keep this comparison in mind. As I have heard,  Henry Kissinger the former Secretary of State, whose first language is German, would be rated a 4+ on the ILR scale. If it weren't for his heavy accent he would be considered as a native English speaker.  Despite the accent, look at what he can do with the language.  That in itself is quite an accomplishment that we can all aspire to.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Press 2 for Spanish

Ahhh, the Spanish option.  It has been for me, a great way to keep my listening and speaking skills sharp.  Although I speak Spanish at home, that is not very challenging-just your usual  "How are you feeling today?" and "What's for dinner?" type of conversation.  From time to time  when I need to speak with a customer service representative, I choose the Spanish option to see how I fare with the rapid-fire speech and having to think on my feet as I describe a technical problem to my satellite provider or the phone company.  But the other day, I found an even better reason to pick the Spanish option.  I needed service through my home warranty company and as is so common these days, I knew I would have to go through a couple of minutes of electronic hoops. But I didn't have the patience at the moment so I decided to press 2 for Spanish and Voila! I was put straight through to a human!   That is probably the best advantage to being bilingual.  Who knew that such a human activity, language, was what could defeat a machine, this time.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Double Standard for the Non-Native Speaker

     When I was in Spain as a grad student I had a conversation with a relative of a Spanish friend about fishing.  Since I had never talked about this topic before in Spanish, I didn't have a lot of vocabulary to describe things so I resorted to circumlocution and asked how to say them.  One word I was at a loss for was 'bait'.  I described it and was told to use "cebo".  Of course after 15 years of hearing Latin American varieties and 10 years of speaking like this, I continued my story pronouncing the word as 'sebo'.  I was stopped and told that I pronounced it wrong because 'sebo', with an 's', was a different word with a different meaning.  Unfortunately I didn't know that word either so I asked about it and got the idea it meant 'fat' or 'grease'. But I insisted on pronouncing 'cebo' as it would be in any part of Latin America, arguing that millions of native speakers in the Americas pronounce this way and word pairs like these can be understood by context.  Her reply was that she can understand them but can't understand me.  This was ridiculous but I didn't want to make a scene (we were in public) and it wasn't worth the trouble seeing as this was someone with a preexisting bias, so I prounounced that ONE word, out of a full conversation that surely including other words with 'ce' or 'ci',  as she asked.
     The Spanish woman's statement that she understands Spanish speakers from Latin America but not me, got me thinking that for her, there is a double standard for the non-native or second language speaker who is not seen as having any legitimate claim to the language by way of family.  He therefore supposedly falls under the authority of the native speaker with whom he interacts, regardless of his actual proficiency or fluency which might not be taken under consideration.  As a consequence, in this case, she assumed that I should be speaking as she, a Spaniard, does because it is 'proper' ,  'correct' or 'the real Spanish' .  Because the language was thought to not be 'mine', my imitation of speakers outside her country or region was not acceptable but yet, in the end, we are pronouncing the same way.  Although it is frustrating when this sort of thing happens, this person probably looked down her nose at Latin American speakers too and maybe thought she was doing me a favor in correcting me of my 'bad habits'.  After all those other speakers can't help that they were born into the language.  So even though I sound remarkably like them and even get asked by Spanish-speakers from Latin America if I have Spanish-speakers in my family, in this case, I was like a bastard child.  Same sound but the wrong parents.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Literature and the Spanish Major

If you are or were a Spanish major, most of your advanced classes were probably in literature.  This is almost always the focus of this degree program as it is with other foreign languages.  It's not unusual for non-native students to express their frustrations about the difficulty of these courses.  They can be more specialized or very broad such as a two semester suvey course covering the history of Spanish literature. There are several problems in such classes for the non-native student who has not yet achieved full fluency in the language.  To start, there is the very high level of literary language he faces when reading and the expectation on the part of the professor that he will be able to discuss it despite his limited vocabulary in speaking and writing.  Most of the words are low-frequency and therefore unfamiliar and the learner must look up many of them just to get the main idea. What's more, because there are so many new words, he cannot use contextual clues since that strategy depends on knowing a greater percentage of the vocabulary in the text.  Constant use of the dictionary slows him down and then time constraints add to the problem. One kind of solution that some departments have begun to incorporate into their programs is a 'bridge' course that will help the intermediate student improve reading skills and introduce him to literature as a way to ease the transition to the upper level classes that focus on literature and culture. This may help solve the problem of the gap in linguistic skill, as it applies to academic uses, between the beginning and advanced classes in university, particularly for someone starting their language major in college, but it ignores the fact that because literature is by and large the focus of language degree programs, there is really no significant effort made to develop the learner's professional communication skills for use in the real world after graduation.  It pushes aside the importance of the language for other purposes. Literature professors are just that, experts in literature and want to teach their speciality and no doubt as native speakers feel that this is the only justifiable area of study for anyone getting a degree in the language, especially a non-native.  That's OK.  Let's just be up front about it and call it was it is- a B.A. in Spanish Literature (not just Spanish).  The name is misleading to students and the public at large who expect  at least functional fluency for a variety of situations beyond social conversation.  Whereas there are bound to be students who major in a language because of their love of literature, this may just be wishful thinking on the part of the department.  Most students, even if they don't mind the challenge of literature, hope to use the language in some way in their future work.  Yes, courses such as Spanish for Business or Spanish for Medical Professionals are becoming more commonplace but they were meant for students majoring in those fields who want to learn or improve in the language so as to be an additional skill, a tool for communication.  Even though the level of language may not go above the intermediate level, the important thing is that they are introduced to vocabulary to talk about things other than literature or linguistics, if even that is achieved after four years.  Being able to read business contracts or import/export documents, describe cultural concepts from our own country, discuss insurance policy options with a new client, giving a business presentation or defending or critizing our country's foreign policy are examples of higher level language use that require a broader and sometimes more precise vocabulary than what is usually taught in an undergraduate program. Reading and being able to discuss el Quixote or the stories of Borges do not translate to competency in other types of communication.  Personally, I don't have a problem with literature per se.  But it's place at the center of the curriculum is at odds with the overall goals and expectations of many students who have other plans for using the language. Native speakers who major in English or Spanish in the U.S. for example, are truly specializing in literature and are aware of this.  In the case of English, if the student is interested only in language, there is Linguistics or a Communication major.  When Spanish is seen as a second language instead of a foreign language, then a degree with a name like Spanish Communcation will become available and bring more students to both the advanced study of the language and its literature.
I have been through all of this myself.  When I finished my B.A. I had strong conversational skills and I had done research on Unamuno (Spanish literary figure) and was familiar with the great works and writers of Spain and Latin America.  I was very adept at circumlocution but I couldn't have described a car problem or accident to someone or have been able to handle calls at a call center (because of the speed and taking down numbers and unfamiliar names spoken fast).  This was frustrating because I had hoped to be able to do these things if I chose to  with my degree in hand.  At those moments I began to question the validity of this piece of paper I got for my college work. Just what does it it meant to have a degree in a foreign language?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Vos and Vosotros

The inclusion of "vosotros" and it's verb forms are pretty much ubiquitous in school and college texts regardless of whether it is taught in the class by the teacher.  This pronoun for the familiar plural you is part of everyday language in Spain but not the Americas. Over here we use "ustedes" for plural you, for both familiar and formal use.  I personally don't use it nor generally teach it, for pragmatic and personal reasons.   It makes more sense because our neighbors to the south don't and millions of them are here in our country, and I interact with them regularly and I identify with them as a speaker of Latin American Spanish.  Those that argue for the teaching of this pronoun say that it's part of the language.  Sure it is but by that logic, you must also say that so is "vos".  After all, "vosotors" means "vos y otros".  What's more, there are more speakers that use "vos" than "vosotros". I agree that a student who will travel to Spain or live there or who wants to read the Bible should become familiar with it.  But for the majority of the American students who take no more than the 4 courses of the basic language sequence, the usual motivation, notwithstanding taking the class for a requirement, is to hopefully learn to speak and understand.  Why?  While Spain is a popular destination, chances are that a student isn't looking to go live there or communicate only with Spaniards , but rather with the large population of Spanish-speakers in the US when he comes back.  Majors and minors are supposed to be familiar with the whole language (not just practical uses) and a variety of Spanish speaking cultures and so it should stand to reason, that "vos" and it's forms be taught to make the serious student's knowledge more complete.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


In my first year of university as a Spanish major, I had made a good friend who like me, had some basic fluency and previous contact with Spanish speakers, especially Venezuelans.  We were ambitious about learning and confident in our ability to make small talk.  One night we had the chance to test just how good it was.  We were invited to an international student party, eager to go to get the practice we always sought out. As we sometimes did when we would go out, we agreed to use only Spanish, unless, the other person didn't speak it.  On this occasion we decided to pretend to be Venezuelans. Part of the reason for this was that we hoped to be addressed in Spanish and not be considered Americans who were simply learning.  It was important for us both socially and linguistically to be viewed as legitimate speakers of the language.  Another reason  was to see if our Spanish was good enough, conversationally, to be taken for native (or having Spanish speaking family).  We were among the first to arrive.  The hostess, an American, asked us where we were from.  We answered - from Venezuela.  She seemed surprised.  Really?  You speak perfect English!  We glanced at each and quietly giggled.  She continued- Those girls over there are Venezuelan too.  I know how much you enjoy talking with your compatriots.  I'll introduce you.  We walked over, introductions made and got the same question in Spanish -Where are you from? -From Venezuela -What city?  -What city are you from?
 -Caracas.  We're from Maracaibo.  We only knew of these 2 cities and we had never been to the country so we had to be from a city they weren't.  Luckily they didn't ask anything else we didn't have answers for.  What seemed no more than a minute more of Q & A and then judgement:  Oh we're sorry, we thought you were Americans.  We thought, Yes!  We're in!  Test over, no more lables.  Now we could just hang out with them for the evening if we wanted to.  They might have been just playing along but we didn't care.  Aside from the fact that we got our practice, we just wanted to feel like we were more insiders than outsiders.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Starting Out in Spanish Part V

Graduate school was a pretty positive experience overall.  I chose Middlebury College's Spanish School, part of their summer language immersion programs.  They require signing a formal pledge to use nothing but the language of the school for the whole summer session even off campus and for graduate students there is the option of four summers on their campus in Vermont or the first summer there and a year abroad in Spain.  This last option was what I chose so I could finish quickly and be out of the country for a longer period of time.  All of this appealed to me also because I wanted to be addressed in Spanish whether I was in the US or abroad.  Up to this point I was aware of how well I could speak and understand by the reactions of native speakers and that was more important, at least socially, than formal assessments by teachers and I had not had any 'level test' either until I applied to this college.  They gave us a comprehensive grammar test before we arrived.  I guessed I did very well because I didn't have to take the required grammar review class for beginning graduate students who were non-native.  I was happy about that but I still wanted to take another kind of class in language that would suit me.  Nonetheless, it was great to hear nothing but Spanish day in and day out and always being addressed in the language by default.  We had a balanced program of language, culture and literature.  In a way it was similar to my undergraduate program but more reading and less linguistic support.  We were really on our own.  That's to be expected and I didn't mind.  I focused all my energy on my course work but also on improving my reading and writing skills.  Speaking and listening were not an issue since I arrived in Spanish with fluent conversational skills.  No doubt, there's something to be said for being able to experience another lifestyle and mindset.  Living there for almost a year was an enjoyable experience.  I didn't feel I acquired more language because I was reaching a plateau where the next step would require a different approach but one class that was very useful was one just on the subjunctive.  It helped me to see it in a different way and to organize it better in my head.  In that same class one of our classmates asked, even though the class wasn't about vocabulary, if the word 'pedazo' was OK to use for 'slice'.  The professor explained that it depended on the thing being sliced.  For bread it would be 'rebanada', a round slice of fruit, 'rueda',  for a piece of pie or something similar, 'trozo', etc.  I was amazed at this.  I only knew 'pedazo' too, but that's all I had heard.  It made me look at words and my own lexicon in a new way.  This same student asked a similar question on another occasion about the word 'handle' as a noun and we got  more words explained by the teacher.  I wrote them down and always wished I could have had this kind of instruction during my studies.  It didn't happen so I found my own solution a couple of years later.
     The year finished quickly and soon my boyfriend in Puerto Rico got me a job teaching English so I went to the island for about 6 months.  I had been there for a week's vacation before leaving for Spain.  I had wanted to fill in the gaps in my general vocabulary for a couple of years but now I became aware of the kinds of words that were new to me and that I thought were important for someone who has an advanced degree.  I didn't let anyone know at the time, but some examples are hose (manguera) and bucket (cubo).  Back on the mainland, my ambition and passion that had always pushed me forward in learning Spanish kicked in again now that I had more free time.   I figured I should read more but this time it wasn't literature but just about everything else-newspapers, magazines, even bilingual labels, manuals, anything.  I read every part of the paper-news, op ed, social announcements, ads, travel, columns, etc.  I went to big stores like K-Mart and Home Depot and read bilingual material and kept a thick notebook noting everything that wasn't part of my active vocabulary.  As I read I kept in mind the register (level of language), phrasing used, given the type of writing or publication and the kinds of combinations of verbs and nouns, nouns and adjectives and verbs and adverbs (collocations).  I collected hundreds of entries and even though I didn't study them per se, I did look over them from time to time just to admire the amount of words I had included.  Little by little I found myself starting to use them in conversations.  Another activity to get exposed to ways of expressing an idea and to learn more vocabulary was to watch American movies with Spanish subtitles (I could only get that in Miami) particularly films that had legal or scientific topics.  My objective was broaden my vocabulary to be able to talk about a greater variety of topics.  Shortly after I started this project, I met the man whom I later married.  He is from Colombia and we spoke only Spanish for many years until his English improved.  Using the language everyday for different purposes stretched my abilities even more.
      Although I have reached a level of comfort with the language, I continue to strive to maintain it and hopefully become more proficient.  Language learning never ends.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Starting Out in Spanish Part IV

I had been waiting for a couple of years since I started college to be able to take nothing but Spanish-no more other courses (even though they were interesting too).  The focus now for me was building on what I had to learn more vocabulary and become fully fluent.  I hadn't really thought yet about what that meant except in the general notion of being able to do anything with the language.  Certainly having a Spanish major would help me get there faster than on my own.  At least that's what I believed. (That is another post.)  I was ready for challenges I knew would be part of my studies.  The concept of lecture classes in Spanish was exciting because we were using the language to learn something else or more language.  It was also satisfying knowing I had 'graduated' to another level beyond review of verb tenses which I had  already mastered.  Of course I still wanted more language classes but this was a small department with a fairly traditional program so after the usual Composition and Conversation classes it was on to lots of literature.  I guess it's a linguistic rite of passage, so to speak, that most language majors go through to get their degree.  Whether or not we have acquired conversational language we get thrown into the deep end of the language pool to learn how not just to swim but to navigate complex texts.  If you survive, you pass, if not, you might change majors.  I made it through at first with a dictionary but like the rest of my classmates we were compelled to abandon that crutch and learn to read without it.  This is very difficult when you are faced with about 50% unknown words that are key to just getting the surface meaning but the professor expects discussion about our interpretation of the piece.  Meanwhile I desperately wanted to learn as much of this new vocabulary as possible for future use but I realized the unspoken message that all vocabulary learning from now on would be our responsibility but that it should come from random words in literary works.  So I did learn things but they didn't include everything I thought was important for saying you had a college degree in a language.  The best part of learning in college for me was listening to the professors' lectures.  It was lots of professional level input.  I asked to tape some of them and on the way home would listen a second time to remember better the content.   Writing papers was fun too.  I enjoyed the research and the process itself and did well on them.  I remember asking native-speaker classmates to proofread my writing and them telling me that parts sounded awkward and not being able to see where or why.  In the end, when I graduated I felt I had gotten the most I could out of the experience and together with daily contact with the language and cultures of Spanish-speaking countries by way of my close friends, (I also went to Venezuela for a couple of weeks to stay with the family of one of them), I was fairly satisfied with what I had accomplished. 
My career goal was to be a Spanish teacher in part because I wanted to teach and also because there was a relatively easy and direct path to get there.  I was very confident that I had the language skills to do so.  However, my first teaching job didn't work out, for non-linguistic reasons, so while I decided what to do next, I went back to Miami for a year and stayed with my dad and took some classes in Interpretation and Translation.  That was interesting but more importantly it was a wake up call to the fact that my vocabulary was sorely lacking.  It forced me to recognize that my conversational skills were not enough to do even a seemingly simple job like answer the phone and transferring calls.  That required something I hadn't thought of before as important-writing down numbers spoken quickly and understanding names that are not the most commonly heard as students.  Later when I came back to my town, another experience allowed me to gauge what I could and couldn't do. 
I met a Venezuelan man who was new in town and didn't speak English, so I offered to give him a day tour of the city.  I thought it would be easy because it would be just conversation and I could circumlocute.  It turned out that circumlocuting was what I had to do since I found myself not having a broad or precise enough vocabulary to describe everything I was trying to say.  After an hour I was mentally exhausted and felt like I physically couldn't breathe.  I took a break for a few minutes then I continued on for the rest of the day and since then  haven't had this kind of problem.  I think it was sheer determination and for the practice I developed some linguistic stamina.  It was becoming clear that I needed to keep learning to get to a more professional level in the language and since I wanted to work with adults, I decided to get my Master's.  Soon a new chapter began in this long journey.  The final part will be in my next post!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Starting Out in Spanish Part III

Now that I was feeling more confident about my listening skills, I continued to push myself, looking for ways to be involved with the language and the people who spoke it in my area.   Over the next few years, I met a handful of international students at my school and some who were studying at the university in town which had a good sized foreign student population.  Even in casual conversations I could notice how they carried their culture with them and picked up on their attitudes towards many things and got a sense of how they viewed their home country and mine.  These encounters weren't everyday but each one was another layer of experience in listening or speaking.  Then  I started upper division classes.  During those last two years of university I also had a couple of  serious boyfriends from Latin American who were here as students.  English was the default language but we would switch back and forth between both and I learned so much language and culture from them directly and indirectly. One thing that I noticed that served as an indicator of what level I was at was that whenever we would talk about something that I thought was important, I prefered English because I wanted to be sure I understood everything.  For casual conversation I felt comfortable using Spanish. That was the relatively easy part to develop because that type of language is common and I sought it out. This skill was solidified by the time I started the advanced classes in university.  I got to practice, for real purposes, a variety of language tasks with the people I knew or met.  Quite often they were situations I had never encountered but perhaps because I was motivated, and had developed skill in circumlocution (using language you know to compensate for what you don't know how to say), I was able to deal with them.  For example, I was once invited to someone's apartment and that person gave me detailed directions in Spanish over the phone.  These kind of experiences gave me a sturdy foundation as I began the more challenging classes in college. 
Now, I was listening to lectures about Spanish history and literature.  It was relatively easy but was more input of a different kind.  So were the Spanish language news reports I 'd listen to on the radio from the city nearby and the salsa and merengue the station played.  Any new song was like a lesson.  After hearing it a couple of times, I learned it the way I would a song in English.  However, this was only if I recognized the words.  There were some I didn't know.   I was also lucky to be taught famous songs and the difficult words in them by my friends.  In this way, I continued to increase my vocabulary through aural input, something I got used to since I originally started in Miami.   So far I was pretty satisfied with what I had learned and thrilled to be advancing in the language through a college major but soon I began to realize that this new stage wasn't quite what I expected.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Starting Out in Spanish Part II

I was just turning 16 when my family moved out of Miami to a small but growing town in Central Florida.  It was my last year in high school and of course I continued on to the Spanish III class.  This new place was in stark contrast with where we came from.  Miami was urban, Latin flavored, high in crime (at the time), sophisticated.  Here it was almost rural, Americana, practically no crime, friendly and laid-back.  Except for one family nearby that was Puerto Rican, there seemed to be no Hispanics.  We joked that we were now in "the real United States".  Despite the outward appearances, there were some Latin Americans that I came in contact with.  Those first few were actually students in my Spanish class.  Most were born in Venezuela and had only been here maybe a few years but spoke English fairly well.  The teacher seemed to emphasize only spelling and written accents with them.  I couldn't imagine anything else they could be taught.  For us, the class was all grammar and vocabulary.  I'm sure that this was basically Spanish in vacuum for the others but I welcomed it because I felt that what I needed to know was how the language worked (grammar), rather than how it sounded or motivation to speak, which came early on for me.  Before moving I had learned present tense, informal commands (which was easy after learning some present tense because I had heard many common commands for years, like, ven (come), dime (tell me), mira (look), oye (listen, hey), present perfect, present progressive and reflexives.  Now I was introduced to all the other tenses and even future subjunctive, with the understanding that it wasn't part of conversational language.  I was able to absorb it all, although I don't know how exactly, but that's part of the reason I'm interested in Second Language Acquisition.  I learned a lot of grammar and even though I couldn't understand the Spanish speaking classmates yet-they spoke very fast as it were- I was confident that it was just a matter of time and more listening and speaking experience.
The following year I started college locally where there were more opportunities to meet international people.  I had already decided to be a Spanish major and eventually a high school teacher. I continued to the next levels without having to start over at the beginning and luckily was able to pick up right where I had left off in high school.  The class I took was 3rd semester Spanish and was a review of grammar.   In that class I made a good friend who had similar interests and background in the language and culture.  We used the language with each other between classes and when we would go out together.  She aslo had contacts with South Americans at the college and introduced me to some of them.  Things were now coming together for me with the language.  For example, one day after the Spanish class in which we reviewing irregular past tenses, like decir (to say/tell), my friend and I started to talk in Spanish about something that had happened the other day.  I found myself saying fluently, without really thinking about it,  "Entonces, que le dijiste?  Que te dijo?  (Pardon the lack of accents)  (So, what did you tell him?  What did he tell you?)  I was conscious that I was "practicing" but for real communication.  I was partly surprised I could do this because I was not taught it directly.  I suppose I acquired (unconscious 'learning') it from the many hours of input I had at the same time I was learning in school.  Sometimes I got to meet people through my friend but most of the time I made small talk with strangers I had heard speak Spanish.  Whenever I saw Spanish, I read; whenever I heard Spanish I listened or spoke if possible. Another thing that helped was the repetition of 'scripts'.  For example, when I met someone they always seemed to ask the same questions such as, What's your name?  Where are you from?  What do you study?  Do you have a boyfriend?  I always knew what to say but the familiarity of actually saying it out loud talking to a new person  helped me to do it a little more fluently each time.  This increased my confidence in speaking. Even though I didn't speak that much I did continue listening to hear natural language.
A turning point came after my first year in college.  I went to visit my dad (parents are divorced) as I did about once a month or two, in Miami where he still lived.  This was a treat since he was in a section with a greater percentage of Hispanics than where I had grown up.  Down there, I had much more access to the language.  There was TV and radio, newspapers, tons of restaurants, cafes, bookstores, nightclubs and other businesses run by and catering to the Spanish-speaking community.  Mostly I just listened to the radio as I had before because I liked the music.  By now, when I listened to the DJ's I could recognize most of the words but wasn't processing them instantly so I missed what they said.  I had been focusing on just the words themselves.  But that weekend I had the idea for some reason to listen to whole phrases and not worry too much about any unknown words.  When I did this, I was able to understand almost everything or at least 80% or so.  It was like a lightbulb went on and I started listening in a different way.
From then on, my learning experiences went in a new direction.
More in the next post!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Starting Out in Spanish Part I

I've been asked over the years by friends and students alike how I learned Spanish or how I got to be fluent. It's a rather long story so I'll post it in parts.
 I started hearing the language at 9 years old when I was growing up in Miami in the 70's.  At that time the Cuban and other Latin American influences were growing but weren't quite what they are today.  The amount of Spanish I heard was limited-not complete immersion.  It was used among the kids in the elementary school, a few in my neighborhood with whom I had contact and on the private family-owned Cuban bus I rode from school to home.  It was mostly just a continuous stream of sounds.  On occasion I could hear a phrase or two that was in context and could figure it out.  There was 'oigo' when answering the phone, 'dale' said to each kid, including me, as we were asked to get on the bus.  Generally speaking, I wasn't addressed or invited to learn it. But I've always been interested in language and other cultures and that natural orientation combined with a deep desire to understand the Spanish speaking kids and fit in with them was my first motivation.  Back then foreign language wasn't really available to learn in a class until high school, not counting the sampling of languages in Jr. Hi.  So for some 5 years I waited still soaking up the sounds of the language, which never sounded 'foreign'; they were just another part of life in Miami. I finally got a chance when I started high school and took a conversational class.  There was Spanish I too, but Spanish Conversation sounded like a better choice and so decided on that one.  After all that's what I thought I wanted.  The class was interesting especially with our teacher, a Cuban-American, who got our attention by doing some antics in first few days.  The content focused on practical phrases and Cuban food words.  We even went on a field trip to Little Havana to a Cuban bakery, ice cream store and then a restaurant to sample what we were learning about in class.  What was significant is that I apparently learned the alphabet , but I don't remember that, it was like I absorbed it, and a few very basic grammar patterns with common verbs. That same year I began pronouncing out loud everything I saw in Spanish-book pages at a friend's house, signs in the Southwest section where my dad lived and there was a higher number of Latins, or whatever came my way.  I also used my limited vocabulary to make small talk with a Puerto Rican friend about things we had in common like music and the Salsa station we listened to.  Listening to the radio became more important now.  I couldn't understand what the DJ said but I got familiar with the songs played and some phrases stood out like the words to the station's jingle. Being exposed to the whole language that was part of the community and not isolated only in a classroom had a positive effect on me and I feel helped move my acquisition along.
The next year I wanted to continue but my only option was Spanish II.  I hadn't had Spanish I, which was a more formal class compared to the conversation one, so I was behind.  I managed to catch up and wasn't too difficult.  It helped to have bought a thick paperback bilingual dictionary (an amazing concept I was glad to have discovered) which I used so much that the cover and some inside pages came off.  The best aspect of the class was that we used part an ALM book (Audio Lingual Method).   This method was in vogue in the 50's and 60's but has since fallen out of favor with the foreign language education community.  One of its central features is dialogs that illustrate grammar and vocabulary of the lesson, followed by various aural / oral exercises to manipulate structures with fluency.  Those exercises worked for me, personally, and gave me a big push towards basic fluency, I believe because I had already heard lots of language and now it was being explained to me how it worked and asking me to try to produce sounds and words I might have heard before.  In my case, I also had the motivation to apply what I was learning to real life situations, re-combining the chunks of language presented to us to make my own sentences.  Since I didn't have direct contact with many Spanish speakers, except casually in school, in my neighborhood and through the media, I didn't have much practice but the grammar I learned in class made sense of what I had heard before I studied the language and so was fairly easy to remember.  This is a bit reversed from what many students experience-learning grammar and vocabulary or rules in class then later having it come together through a trip abroad.  For some reason, even though I hardly used the language, I was able to retain most of what I learned in those first few years of formal study in high school until I started speaking more right afterwards in college.  At the end of my junior year in high school, my family moved a few hours north to a small community in Central Florida.  It may seem ironic, but it was there and not Miami where I interacted  the most with native Spanish speakers.  I'll post the next chapter in this story shortly.
Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Welcome to My Blog

Welcome to all my new readers!  This blog is about my experiences, observations and perspectives on learning, and using Spanish in the US, including my many years interacting with native Spanish speakers in the areas in which I've lived.  I hope to also comment on different aspects of being a Spanish or Spanish Education major in university.  I grew up in Miami, Florida where I was influenced by the language and Cuban culture.  My journey from that time to the present as a Spanish Instructor in a small, private university has been an adventure that I plan to write about in future posts. 
Come join me as I explore these issues and others relating to being and becoming bilingual in America.