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!


  1. Wow! What determination! I find what you have accomplished simply amazing. Your story is very inspirational and has brought to my attention the need to challenge myself to a more in-depth study of this language if I want to succeed in its aquisition. Thank you so much for sharing your story! Lacey

  2. Thanks Lacey, and all the others who have posted comments. There are many other stories that I didn't include in this series but are sure to come up in future posts. Thanks for reading!