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!


  1. Wow Anna, that was so good. You did it 'al revés' from what most people do. You had already a taste of Spanish, and once you learned it, you were able to 'recognize' what you had already 'learned' (or at least subconsciously).

    Well, I definitely am looking forward to hearing Part Two.

    Tu amigo,

    --André L.

  2. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  3. Anna you are a true inspiration to me. I am so happy our pathes crossed and that you shared your blog with me. I am enjoying reading it and gaining the motivation to go after my dream and learn Spanish fluently by immersing myself in the language again. Thank you again and look forward to reading on.

    :) Melanie

  4. Excelente post muy interesante te felicito Anna por tu iniciativa