Friday, December 17, 2010

A Day of Immersion in Miami

On a couple of occasions I have taken former students of mine to Miami for a full day of Spanish practice.  I got started doing this after discussions with classes about field trips and going abroad.  What better place than Miami for a taste of Latin America without leaving the country?  However, I only took people who had had at least 2 semesters of study because true beginners would be even more overwhelmed and not get that much out of it.  I was hoping to further motivate these students by sharing a small part of what I knew of the language and culture and letting them experience some of it themselves.
      The week beforehand, I went down, planned my route, made some arrangements and recorded some of the most popular songs of the moment for them to listen to on the way for ambiance and to learn some phrases by singing along with the chorus (I printed the words out).  On the itinerary were a tour of Little Havana, stops at a Cuban bakery, a Cuban restaurant, a Colombian bookstore, a Latin supermarket (suggested by the 2 ladies I took on this trip), and a Colombian café.  I was very organized - everything planned down to the minute.  I thought it would go exactly as expected.  The morning began with excitement and anticipation.  At 7 am sharp, I picked up my passengers at their house.  It was too early in the morning for salsa music so I held off on using the tape I made.  There wasn't much conversation because of their limited Spanish but I stuck to my promise to not speak English (even if they did).  We ended up using repetitive questions like ¿Quieres? or  ¿Te gusta?.   But no matter.  Repetition is good, right?  By the time we got to Miami, we were a bit hungry, so first stop-a bakery for Cuban coffee. I figured I would have to order but since they knew the numbers I was hoping they'd listen for our ticket number.  Not this time around.  No, this wasn't going to be linguistic at all.  This was my first indication that I had taken this cultural familiarity for granted.  While I was ready to order and eat they seemed to be entranced by another world infused with it's own exotic sights and smells.  "What's this?" they asked, peering into the glass case filled with unfamiliar looking sweets.  "What are you going to get?"  "What do you recommend?"  They sat back and watched it all unfold in front of them.  I got the feeling they were experiencing sensory overload.  I got them café con lechepastelitos de queso y otros de guayaba.  They did say they enjoyed the food without much more commentary, so I left it at that.  We were already on  Calle Ocho the main artery through  La Pequeña Habana, and site of an annual festival every March, which was the next leg of our tour.  This part was mostly for its visual impact of seeing most store names and signs in Spanish, ending with a quick drive by Máximo Gómez Park, also known as Domino Park
     Now we were on our way to the bookstore.  I chose the place, primarily because the owner, whom I had become friendly with over the years, would be open to having Spanish-language learners attempt to speak with her.  When we got there, I introduced everyone, she greeted them warmly with a customary kiss, then launched into a conversation about how they were enjoying the local weather.  Being greeted with a kiss by a stranger, albeit a woman, took them slightly by surprise, but they went with the flow.  However, the Spanish went right over their heads and relied on me to communicate for them.  The small, compact store intrigued them as they started to wander around.  One shelf label caught their eye:  Literatura latinoamericana.  "Professor, why doesn't it say 'española'?"    I explained how that word would refer to something from Spain exclusively.  That's when I realized that the little things I have always taken as a given were completely new, 'foreign', if you will, from their monocultural point of view.  This was supposed to be, after all, the whole point of venturing down to Miami but I hadn't ever, up until that moment, seen what was completely normal to me, through the eyes of someone who was only familiar with American (USA) culture.  There were more cross-cultural differences and misunderstandings to come.
     It didn't take long for them to have their fill of browsing in one place.  They wanted to go exploring the other shops and eateries, all Latino, down the long strip mall that the bookstore was a part of.  Sure, I thought-why not?  There's plenty to see.  As they were about to walk out the door, I heard, "Say bye to your friend for us."  Little alarm bells went off in my head.  What?  You can't do that, I said.  You have to say good-bye personally, was all I could get out of my mouth, but they were gone.  A bit embarrassed and feeling like I had been left holding the bag, I went to the owner and apologized that they left.  I began to feel like a cultural ambassador.  First I explained their cultural viewpoint; she was of course, graciously understanding.  Then, sensing a teachable moment, I went outside to find the ladies to explain to them the importance of  returning and saying good-bye 
     If it was only that simple.  Now, a new snag presented itself.  Outside, I didn't see them.  Could they have gone into a store?  But which one?  There were more than a dozen.  I started to panic. This was the same summer that Chandra Levy had disappeared.  While we weren't in a particularly dangerous area-I wouldn't have gone- but they were tourists, didn't speak the language or know the local culture and could get into trouble. Just a minute had gone by when they emerged from a shop nearby.  I called them over.  As we were beginning to talk about returning to the bookstore, a suspicious looking man approached us.  My concerns about my guests were heightened.  He spoke to them in Spanish, quickly switched to English, trying to engage them in conversation and apparently asking for money.  My instincts were to dismiss him and get away but they made small talk for a few moments but since none of us showed interest in continuing or giving him anything, thankfully, he left on his own.  It took about 10 minutes to explain about polite greetings and leave-takings, but they understood and we all went back to the bookstore and said our good-byes and thanked the owner for her hospitality. 
      Still on schedule, we headed for the Cuban restaurant I had in mind.  It is a very popular place but I didn't count on it being so packed, not to mention there was unexpected road construction on the corner, making it difficult to get in and out of the parking lot.  Switch to plan B- another nearby local restaurant chain, less formal and less crowded at any given hour of the day.  I was still full from the morning's pastry but they were ready for a bite to eat.  My best option was just a cup of caldo gallego.  They each ordered a sándwich cubanoWhen it arrived, I couldn't figure out why they were surprised at its large size, as they considered it.  I guessed that's why they could only eat half of it.   We took our time, lingering over our meal, then a new question to think about:  "How come they haven't brought us the check?"  Mmmmmm.  This was interesting to me on a couple of levels.  Certainly this is not usual in the U.S., especially in casual places like this but we were not in a hurry so I was struck by their comment.  Were they ready to go?  Did they think the service was bad because of this?  I explained the custom and differences in viewpoint in both cultures, which they appreciated and found eye-opening.  I realized they were learning the kinds of things I had hoped they would. 
     After this, we then went on to a Latin supermarket.  It was a request my passengers had made the week before.    The place was bustling with activity.  Spanish was floating all around-easily overheard conversations, people ordering from the butcher, announcements about specials over the speakers.  They strolled down the aisles observing the tropical produce on display, the labels and signs in Spanish, imagining what it all meant.   Just about everything there was from Latin America- common foods, popular brands, but still recognizable by its name or packaging- until they came across bags of mate.  I knew about it but had never actually tasted it, but still I could give them an idea.  After a half an hour of wandering around, they were ready to move on to the last stop- a Colombian café.
     I had met the owner some time before and would usually drop by to say hi to her whenever I was in Miami.  It was a kiosk separate from the adjacent shopping center, with its own little patio, white plastic tables (with built-in umbrella for shade) and chairs for seating.   We just plopped our tired selves down to take a breather while we waited for her to come over and say hi.  I introduced everyone.  Aside from "Hola, ¿cómo estás?" that was the extent of interaction in Spanish between the two parties.  Since my friend didn't speak much English, and my former students equally limited in Spanish, I served as interpreter.  But it was almost 3pm; the day was already over.  Although they had to use some English with me during the day, the mental exhaustion from being semi-mute for eight hours left them feeling worn out and more than ready to head back home.  I couldn't help but sympathize.  I, too, was quite spent from constant driving and still facing another 3 hours on the road.
     On the way back, I mulled over the events of the day, analyzing what had happened, particularly at the restaurant.  I wondered about their reactions and found myself comparing cross-cultural differences from two points of view: that of a learner, experiencing another world for the first time and that of a (Hispanic) culture-bearer observing an outsider.  As I thought about it, I realized  I was seeing where each other's perception lies from a different standpoint.  It was a strange third space I hadn't experienced before- somewhere in between worlds and yet not fully in either.  "Wow", I thought to myself,  "supongo que, como dice la canción de Facundo Cabral, 'No soy de aquí ni soy de allá.'".

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bilingual Weekends in Miami

Today my dad took me to a local Cuban restaurant not too far from the town where I live in Central Florida. We get together every so often to have lunch and since we are from Miami, it's quite often for Latin food. Such meals give us a chance to reminisce about his years living in Southwest Miami and the many weekends I would go to visit him there.  Those times were meaningful in several ways.  Not only did I get to spend a few days relaxing with my dad but I also got to soak up the bilingual environment of his city.  I would let him play tour guide, (I hadn't lived there since I was a teenager) and take me around and he let me play interpreter wherever we went. There was no partying; all our activities were low-key.  Many were the same almost everytime I would go down to visit:  listening to the Spanish-language radio stations most of the way down and back, going to a Cuban restaurant on the Friday night I would arrive, followed by a trip to the nearby Blockbuster store to rent a movie subtitled in Spanish (something I could only do there before DVDs were invented). At his house, I didn't just watch the film and notice the translations, which is fun in its own right. I often picked ones that had lots of legal or technical vocabulary so that I could write down every new word I came across in a notebook I kept for that purpose.  On Saturday I usually went to Spanish-language bookstores looking to add to my collection or say hi to one owner that I knew who was sweet and polite with me.  Other times, I'd comb through the white and yellow pages of the phone book, which was bilingual, for words and phrases about types of business or how to set up phone service.  On one occasion, my dad had gone out of the house to do an errand and left me alone when the phone rang.  A woman started speaking Spanish asking for the owner of the house.  She was apparently a solicitor so I explained that not only did I not live there but that my dad didn't speak Spanish and since there was no sale to be made she excused herself and hung up.  Such occurances are not uncommon.  Neither is receiving bilingual junk mail or trilingual (with Haitian Creole) materials from the county, for example about hurricane preparedness, which my dad would gather and save for me so I could study the translations. Sunday mornings were a treat too.  We had our little routine of going to our favorite Cuban bakery.  My dad would tell me how many pastelitos de queso to order and how he wanted his café con leche so I could then make it clear in Spanish.  It may not seem like much but part of the fun was that this place in particular was very busy and fast-paced so you had to pay attention for your number to be called in Spanish and like most transactions in such places, you have to be able to speak quickly and know what you want.  On the way back to the house, we'd pick up the newspaper and its Spanish edition and then spend the rest of the morning savoring the coffee and pastries while we took our time reading most of the sections of the paper.  It was all short-lived though.  The fun ended around 2 pm so I wouldn't get back to my town too late. Then it was back to what a friend of mine used to call 'the real United States'. As with those memorable weekends, our trip down memory lane over  lechón, yuca, frijoles y tostones was over before we knew it but delicious while it lasted.  My dad moved up to my area a few years ago when he retired. So, even though I don't go to South Florida anymore like I did before, he and I can still enjoy this small part of what used to be my bilingual weekends in Miami.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

ESL and Spanish Language Learners: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

     Ten years ago I finished an eight-year period of teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to adults in a daytime program through the local school board.  I sort of fell into the job since what I was really looking to do was teach Spanish.  Soon after I started this position, I also began teaching Spanish at the community college in my area.  I had the opportunity during those years, to observe many differences between the two groups in terms of motivation, goals, curriculum and attitudes towards the other language and the people or society that used it.  At first glance, it seemed that each was the opposite of the other.  Immigrants learning English, and Americans learning Spanish.  I taught the beginning levels of Spanish (first two semesters) and the Intermediate-Low level in the English program.  What quickly became clear was that most of the ESOL students could communicate with me in English about a variety of topics at a basic level even though their grammar and vocabulary had some flaws. However, only students of Spanish who had had several years of high school study and/or good AP scores were comparable.  Of course this would be reasonable to expect, given that recent arrivals are here in an English-only environment and need it to survive, at least, and get ahead and integrate into society.  No student of Spanish, not even Spanish teachers have the same expectations placed upon them (professors, a bit more but usually limited to expertise and use for the workplace and their particular field, for example, literature or linguistics).   English as a second language speakers who become bilingual to any degree usually do so because of the circumstance they find themselves in, that is, being in an English-speaking country and so are called circumstantial bilinguals.  Those born in the US and whose family didn't speak Spanish at home as a native language and acheive a degree of bilingualism are called elective bilinguals, because they freely chose to learn a second language and not because they were obligated to do so in order to thrive in a new country and society.
     Aside from the general speaking ability of the students I met, the topics and skills expected of the English students at the intermediate level, were of practical and mostly immediate need.  Some examples I came across in either textbooks or from listening in on other classes were how to use an ATM, how to use a gas pump (and the English phrases associated with it) and cuts of meat associated with different dishes.  At the time,  I was, in a way, jealous that they were even being introduced to them, when we (non-native or non-heritage speakers) rarely, if ever, get such opportunities.  It was even more eye-opening when I went to a TESOL conference (for teachers of English for Speakers or Other Languages).  In teaching materials alone there was more available on every aspect of the language and American culture, particularly vocabulary, than I have ever seen for Spanish, and certainly, when it came to adult education, highly practical.  I started to see that the eventual expectations for the non-native English speaker living in the US were far greater, in general and broad terms, than for any non-native student of Spanish. I felt frustrated not only for personal reasons but also because I came to  realize  the hegemony of English.  Native speakers of English, even those who can speak another language well, can forget or not see this.  It's easy to take your (first) language for granted in your own country.  For example, we request a counter check at the bank,  explain to the doctor the reason for our visit, shop for car insurance, politely get rid of a telemarketer,  give detailed directions to someone, request warranty repair and many other day-to-day uses of language.  We might not need to know how to do that in Spanish to survive in this country, however, such highly practical language skills, must be developed in order to approach becoming fully bilingual.  By this I mean going beyond handling spontaneous casual conversation and carrying out the linguistic functions required for a job that entails interacting with other professionals or the public in the language. 
      Foreign language education starts off bottom-up then jumps several rungs on the ladder towards the top where literature is found and becomes top-down but the middle -this wide range of language that I mention above, sandwiched in-between basic casual conversation and low-frequency literary language- is nowhere to be found.  The illusion doesn't become apparent until it is tested in the real world of everyday practical and professional language use that is taken for granted in bilingual communities. 
     Some initiatives have been taken to improve foreign language education in the United States. A few years ago, the Modern Language Association issued a report entitled "Foreign Languages and Higher Education:  New Structures for a Changed World".  In it, there is a discussion of how universities and colleges might reorganize their programs to balance language, culture and literature.  It may not be what everyone ideally wants but it is a significant change for the better. You can read about it here.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

You Know You're Bilingual (or Really Fluent) When...

You say something to someone (or heard something) but don't remember what language it was in because you were only focused on the meaning.

You start a sentence in one language and finish in another or you intermingle phrases and words from both within a sentence or a story (code-switching).

You have dreams in both languages.

You find it hard to answer the question "Which language do you prefer?"

These are only a few of the things that I could come up with.  I invite all my readers to add to these or suggest variations on the ones I have put here.
I 'm looking forward to your comments!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Maintaining Bilingual Skills in the US

I have heard people tell me that  it's difficult to maintain their language skills because they say they don't live in an area with a lot of Spanish speakers. To a certain extent, I agree, but my contention is that it's not the numbers that count but rather how you make the most of them. Even if you live in an area with a large number of bilinguals, how and how often you interact with them might depend on your skills, and willingness to use them.  In addition, if you haven't developed basic fluency yet, bilinguals are often not the best choice for speaking partners since on average, they are more likely to switch to English rather than patiently wait for you to finish your thought in Spanish.  If you live in an area without an obvious Spanish speaking population, they still may be around but you'd have to seek out the community.  For listening and reading there is no limit to how much you can access especially with the Internet.  Satelite TV providers have Spanish language packages with numerous channels from around the world.  There are also language exchange sites that have real time voice chats like sharedtalk and livemocha.  But there's nothing like interacting face to face with people in person.  I feel that networking is the best way to grow your circle of contacts. You may have friends that speak Spanish (even if they use English with you), and they have family and friends.  Hopefully you get invited to their get-togethers and get to meet others and so on.  If you belong to a church, they may have Spanish language services, which could be good listening practice or a way to meet other people.
The important thing is to have daily contact with the language no matter what form that may take.  In the U.S., where English is the dominant language, you can never get enough listening and speaking practice in Spanish, so dive in and soak up as much as you can!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Learning Multicultural Spanish

     It has been my experience that Spanish, for the most part, is still taught as a 'foreign' language in the U.S.-an exotic tongue far removed from our everyday lives that only exists as a truly living language, instead of a second language with millions of native speakers right here in our own country who use it not only for private, personal communication but also in business and in some areas, for public or political matters. 
     There are some advantages to learning Spanish as a foreign language in the U.S. It's fairly common to be exposed to a range of regional variations of different vocabulary, usually for things like food, clothing or common colloquial expressions, while focusing on the most widely used words.  This is a good thing, at least in theory, since it would allow us to understand or speak to people from different countries and not limit us to just one and that is quite practical for living in the US where Spanish-speakers come from a variety of places.
Spanish is a rich language and certainly beginning students should be aware of some of these differences in vocabulary. 
      For a more advanced student, however, this can become a double-edged sword.  He continues to grow his repertoire of regional varieties through study, travel and contact with native speakers, but that lexicon is possibly a hodgepodge of vocabulary, mixing words from different countries in one conversation This might sound strange or confusing depending on whom you are talking with.
     I think it's important to know how people say thing in different places but depending on where you live, knowing a particular regional variety as well, can be just as valuable particularly if you want to be involved in a local Hispanic/ Latino community.  For example, if you live in the Southwest, Mexican colloquial expressions, slang,  vocabulary, and pronunciation would be worthwhile, in the Northeast, Puerto Rican or Dominican varieties, according to the demographics of the area, and in South Florida, Cuban.
     Knowing a wide variety of regional usages takes time to learn and is a commendable goal but there are some 21 countries with Spanish as an official language and it's unrealistic that anyone would learn the unique vocabulary, when it differs from most other countries, for even a handful of countries.  Certainly by living there or even in an emigree community for an extended period of time, it is more probable that at least a learner can become proficient in one.
     If you have been in the situation of mixing 'dialects' or are trying to specialize or diversify your Spanish, please share your stories here by leaving a comment!