Wednesday, December 26, 2012

An Adventure in Circumlocution

 For how long have you ever sustained a conversation in Spanish (or your second language)? I had never thought about this until more than 20 years ago when I found myself in a day-long marathon of a conversation. How I ended up in that situation is a story in itself.

A couple of years after college and less than a year before I started grad school I heard an ad on the only Spanish-language radio station in the area announcing they were looking for bilingual sales reps for the station. Now, I had no interest in actually doing any selling, nor am I any good at it, in any language, but did that stop me? Goodness no. What did interest me was this open invitation to speak Spanish in a non-social setting, so I went. At the designated time I arrived at the station and there was instructed to wait until called to the meeting. There were few people there in the waiting area but one, a large man was speaking Spanish with a lady who worked there. As I listened I was struck by his accent, surely Venezuelan. It was an intuitive reaction, perhaps wishful thinking since just 3 years earlier I had been there to visit my then boyfriend/fiance. Compelled to speak up, I went over to him and asked in a natural tone that showed an intent to bond with him, “ ¿Tú habla' e'pañol?” followed by “¿De dónde ere'?” purposely dropping my s's. My 'presentimiento' was right. He was from Venezuela and as it turned out, from the same city as my former boyfriend where I had spent 2 weeks. We talked up a storm about his country giving me a chance to not only reminisce with him about local culture and geography but also to feel more like 'su paisana' than simply a non-native speaker who can communicate and happened to have been to an area tourists don't usually frequent. We hit it off and I offered to show him around town the following week since he had just moved here and didn't speak English.

After about 5 or 10 minutes, we were called to a conference room for what I thought was a group interview. Actually it was more of a meeting to inform us about what the job would entail. It seemed there were no real requirements and it would be commision only all of which made it less appealing even to just listen to in Spanish. I got bored very quickly and my blood sugar was dropping and so I had my excuse to duck out of there. I was ready to leave anyhow because I had already gotten what I came for.

A week later, my new friend and I got in touch and agreed to meet for a tour of the city. We started out in the morning around 9. I had been looking forward to it since I had mentioned the idea to him. I began by giving some background about the area and its general demographics and features of the area. So far so good, even though I found that I had to circumlocute (talking your way around the vocabulary you don't know by using what you do know) more words than I expected, —until about 20 minutes into the conversation when my lack of precise vocabulary and constant circumlocution literally had me out of breath. I started hyperventilating. I had to stop talking and roll down the window, take some deep breaths and relax some 15 to 20 minutes before I could resume my informal and spontaneous presentation. When I did, I resigned myself to the fact that I would be spending the rest of the day circumlocuting and prepared myself psychologically for it. However, my confidence in being able to describe my city had eroded away so I gave up on the idea that my vocabulary was broad enough for this day-long task. By the end of the day, I felt that although I had ran a linguistic marathon, I had gained a type of stamina and confidence to make it through a day without tiring from circumlocution.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Levels of Language: The Revised ACTFL Guidelines

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has revised its guidelines which describe various levels of proficiency. These newer guidelines now include a higher level, Distinguished, as well as more detailed descriptions of the levels and video excerpts from interviews that serve as examples of what a speaker can do at the different levels. Check this page for some general information about the guidelines and this page to see the videos for Speaking along with the explanations given for the level assigned to each speaker.

The videos of the interviews are in English, which will surely interest my readers who have English as a second language but those of us who speak Spanish as a second language can also benefit by imagining how we would fair in responding to similar prompts in our second language at the different levels that are shown.

A Numbers Game or How I Made the Most Out of Living in an Area with a Small Spanish-speaking Population

People tell me I’m lucky to be in Florida because there are many Spanish speakers here. Well, yes and no. Yes, there are large numbers of Hispanics here (assuming they speak Spanish as well, although that’s not always the case) but they are not evenly distributed throughout the state. The largest concentration of Hispanics are in the bigger cities like Miami and Orlando. My town is much smaller and the percentage of Hispanics in my county according to the 2010 census is about 8% and almost 23% in the state as a whole. When I came to this area from Miami 30 years ago it was significantly less. Ironically it was back then, and in the years before the Internet, that I got most of my speaking practice. At that time I was making the most of the opportunities around me, mostly through international classmates and networking with friends. But their mere existence was not enough to guarantee the chance to hear and speak the language. For one, no one knew I was capable of sustaining a conversation until I did something about it and spoke up. Even when my best friend in college (a non-native major like me who had a similar level but had many social contacts) introduced me to her friends in Spanish, specifying to them that I could speak the language, I was still addressed in English. I quickly learned that I had to prove my ability to handle myself in a conversation by switching to Spanish and then sustained use of the language as a means of insisting on my preference. It most always worked.

Today, even though the numbers have increased dramatically, I no longer actively seek to have contact with the local Spanish-speaking community and consequently have fewer face-to-face encounters in the language. But what remains the same is the fact that in general, the Spanish speakers here also speak English and are integrated into the community and not marginalized. Because of that, if I want to use Spanish, I have to be the one to initiate the switch otherwise my interlocutor will go on obliviously in English. I have come to realize through my experiences that the number of speakers in an area doesn’t tell the whole story. If I hadn’t been a college student back when I was looking for people to speak with, I might have never even known there were any since I wouldn’t have been traveling in those circles. And even in Miami, a bilingual city, for all intents and purposes, I was not addressed in Spanish, a social reality that has not changed despite becoming fluent. Switching languages, for whatever purpose, falls to me. In the end, no matter how many Spanish speakers there may be in an area, the key is, in my humble opinion, making the most of the situation and hopeful becoming involved in the community so that through social contacts you can increase your language opportunities.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What is Your Level?

If you’re interested in getting practice in listening and reading and getting an idea about your level in those skills at the same time, check out GLOSS .  I have used this page personally and have recommended it to others who are learning or perfecting their skills in the languages available there.

This link will take you to the site’s main page where you can choose the language you are working on, the level you’re at or trying to reach, then click on “Search Lessons”. From there you can select one to start on. Each lesson takes about an hour and except for any writing assignments as a final activity for a lesson, there is feedback available when you click on “Check Answers”. What level should you start at? This site is from the Defense Language Institute and uses the government’s ILR scale. You can read the level descriptors for listening here. If you think you might be at level 2, for example, you could try out the lessons for that level. If you get most or all the answers right on a variety of lessons for that level, you are likely at that level. But if you only get answers right about half the time you’re probably at level 1+ for the modality (listening or reading) that you worked on.   Regardless of the level you're trying to reach, you're sure to find the activities challenging.

I hope that the GLOSS site will be a valuable resource to all those who use it.

Whom Do You Talk To In Your Second Language?

I used to talk to anyone when I was learning Spanish. Every Spanish speaker was potential practice. Although I never said anything like “I’m learning Spanish will you talk with me?” , I would either look for an excuse to approach a person or sometimes in social settings, I’d go up to people and ask “¿Tú hablas español?” just the way I had seen native speakers do amongst themselves when they wanted to connect with other Spanish speakers. I too wanted to engage in this kind of cultural and linguistic bonding. It usually worked; I made friends and got natural ‘practice’ out if it and consequently, more confidence in speaking.

These days, I’ve become more selective about whom I choose to address in Spanish. I don’t need ‘practice’ per se, and the type of motivation I had in the past has been fading. I came to realize this just a few weeks ago when I went to an auto parts store to pick up a part for my husband who was repairing his truck. When I got there, I saw that one of the employees was bilingual (next to his name tag, it said “También hablo español”). I thought for a minute about asking for the part in Spanish but I decided against it. It would be weird, that is, awkward, socially, and there was no reason for both of us to use Spanish. English would have been the assumed preferred language because we are in the U.S. and Spanish is a minority language here in my area. I also imagined that employee would assume I preferred English and was simply practicing the language and in reaction to that would more than likely just switch to English. I figured the inertia to overcome that situation wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Besides the issue of negotiating the most efficient language to use for the transaction, there was no possibility of cultural camaraderie so I just used English.

Under what circumstances would you speak to someone in a naturalistic setting (not a learning situation where both you and the other person are in the role of student and teacher, respectively)? I invite all my readers to share their stories!