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!