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.