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.