On Learning the Language

I am not quite sure what I thought learning Spanish would be like.  Actually, that’s not true. On some level, I thought that once I heard a word once, I would remember it.  As in, I would learn one word at a time, and learn some language patterns, and then it would be fine.  I would be go to good.

Turns out, for me, learning Spanish is not like that at all. Here are some updates on my Spanish-learning journey:

  • After being confused as to why my yoga teacher kept referring to milk during yoga class, I learned the difference between la leche, milk, and derecha, right.
  • After an embarrassing and confusing ordering mix-up, I learned the difference between jamón, ham, and salmón, salmon.
  • After describing a woman as ¨wearing cats,¨ I learned the difference between gatos, cats, and gafas, glasses.

Like with any learning process, we learn more from our mistakes than from our triumphs.  However, I am noticing some patterns in my language acquisition.  I’m realizing it takes me about six or seven times of hearing the word, and being given the knowledge of what it is, before I am able to recognize it consistently, and about six or seven times of using it in context before I am able to authentically integrate it into my vocabulary and recall it at will.

When I discovered this, I spent about two days feeling extremely frustrated I couldn’t remember a word after I heard it or looked it up once.  Then, my mom gave me a good reality check.  She said, ¨Lauren, it takes human beings about 18 months before they start talking, even a little bit.  They spend all that time listening.  Calm down.¨  After going to another yoga class, and listening, I realized, she is right.  Calming down, is a good idea.

Honestly, the acquisition of new vocabulary words in English isn’t all that different for me, even at this stage in my academic English career.  For completely new or unknown vocabulary words, it takes me multiple times of using and hearing the word before it is integrated into my everyday vocabulary.  I am not sure why I thought learning a different language I didn’t know at all would be easier than learning a language I’ve studied extensively and use daily.

Now though, I’m committed to the process. I’m accepting the fact that it’s going to take me about 14 times before I consistently get it right (or almost-right, at any rate).

I am currently in week two of a Level A1 intensive Spanish class, and I have my third and final week of  summer class next week.  I’ll start up again in fall, and my goal is to pass the exam so I can enter Level A2. 

In the mean time, that’s going to mean a lot of studying, practicing, and messing up.  I’ll keep you posted.

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Chicken Salad & Yoga

I was hungry and crabby. I had been in Barcelona for two weeks, and I had yet to cook myself a proper meal. Don’t get me wrong- I was eating plenty- but eating out was expensive. The task of cooking, however, seemed daunting. ¨What do I cook?¨ I thought.  ¨Where do I buy it? How can I cook traditional Spanish dishes?¨

After walking by six fresh fruit stands, three grocery stores, and two meat stores – all on my four-block walk home from the metro stop- I noticed I was being ridiculous.

¨Lauren, you’ve been feeding yourself for years,¨I told myself. ¨You can clearly make this work.¨

Nevermind the fact that we don’t have an oven in our apartment (Note to self:  In the future, no matter how beautiful the floors and ceilings, be sure to check if the house has an oven), I was going to figure this out.

Chicken salad.  It was the last thing I made myself in Madison before I moved.  It was a family recipe I knew by heart.   And gosh darn it, I could poach the chicken rather than bake it.

After bouncing from shop to shop assembling the proper supplies, I came home, put on my audiobook, and got to work in the kitchen.  I poached the chicken, and assembled the fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Celery, grapes, pecans, fresh pineapple and fresh oranges (the Barcelona markets have a leg up on the canned fruit the recipe calls for), and dressed it with the signature dressing: mayonnaise and nutmeg. 

I even bought a fresh loaf of bread to serve it on.

The finished product was on the counter.  I arranged my plate and was feeling pretty proud of myself for the first meal I cooked Spain, when my roommate walked in, stared at my chicken salad and said, ¨That looks interesting.¨

My face fell.  My heart fell.  My stomach fell. My chicken salad no longer seemed appetizing. 

That’s when I realized, this wasn’t about the chicken salad.  This was about wondering, ¨Who am I in Spain?¨

Yesterday, at my new yoga studio- which I discovered exists directly below my apartment- two blonde women about my age came to class.  Based on their general demeanor, and listening to them muddle through a Spanglish conversation with the man at the front desk, I immediately had an inkling they were two American women traveling through Barcelona.

Now, you might think that the appearance of two women from my home country, around my age, who share an interest in one of the hobbies I am most passionate about, and who speak a language I actually know, would immediately spark a connection for me.  Naturally, I would want to reach out to them.  But no, my first response was to stay as far away from them as possible.  ¨I don´t want to be associated with them,¨I thought.  ¨They are clearly traveling Americans.  I live in Barcelona.  I fit in more than that.¨

Then I remembered that the only thing that really separated me from them was the fact that I can say the phrase, ¨Mi español is no bueno¨ in am almost perfect Spanish accent.

I quickly got over myself and reached out to make the connection.  ¨I heard you speaking English,¨I said.  ¨Where are you from?¨ I went on to have a lovely conversation with two women from Boston having a trip of a lifetime.

The conversation left me thinking,  ¨I don´t want to fit in;  I want to belong.¨

Right now, for me, ¨fitting in¨ means staying silent for long periods of time and using exaggerated body language to communicate so no one discovers I don’t actually speak Spanish yet.  That leaves me not being able to speak Spanish and not having any friends. What kind of adventure is that?

Yes, being American is complicated.  We are one of the most powerful countries in the world.  We have with a complex and storied history, a controversial leader, and an uncertain future. Most of us grow up speaking English, and not much else.  Our news is more likely to focus on things happening on our soil than around the world, and often, we get a bad rep for being entitled and self-centered.

However, when I see a fellow American, or a fellow native English-speaker for that matter, I don’t want my response to be to shrink away.  I want it to be to reach out.  I speak English.  And yes, I am learning to speak Spanish, but let’s be real, I don’t speak it well yet.  And even when one day, with practice, I will, my first language will always be English.

Belonging means having all of me be here, and probably not fitting in.  It means claiming who I am, and being mindful of my privilege as a white, American woman, but also bringing all of me to the table anyway.

Tonight, after yoga class, I sat down to dinner with my roommate.  She had made salad (the traditional way- with lettuce), and I was eating my chicken-salad concoction.

¨Do you want some?¨ she asked, motioning to her lettuce-salad.

¨Sure!¨ I said.  ¨You want to try some chicken salad?¨

¨Why not,¨ she replied.

And you know what?

She liked it.

Not only did she eat her whole plate, but we spent the evening talking about our favorite foods from childhood, dishes our countries are famous for, and what we always cook when we go home.

Who knew?

Turns out chicken salad – mayonnaise and all- can be a pretty good form of belonging.

Small Potatoes and Bank Issues

A few days before moving to Spain, I Skyped with one of my best friends from high school, who is now living in Bordeaux, France.  As we were talking about my upcoming adventure, she said, “I can’t believe you are getting ready to move- by yourself- to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.”

I was like, “Wait, what? Didn’t you just do the same thing?  You’re in France right now!”  Then I remembered, she speaks fluent French.

Here’s some things that will improve when I learn Spanish:

  • When the lunch lady explains to me that there is sauce to go with the fried potatoes, and describes where the sauce is, I will put sauce on my potatoes, rather than salad dressing.
  • When I order a sandwich, I can communicate that I want it toasted, rather than to-go.
  • When the bank asks for my secret number, I will know exactly which PIN they mean, rather than locking myself out of my bank account.

Thankfully, the Head of Human Resources and the Business Manager at my school helped out with that last one. 

However, these events got me thinking, as a soon-to-be English Language Learner (ELL) Teacher, what are the small things my students will struggle with?  What things can I anticipate that they will need extra support in negotiating?  What are the things that are so much a part of everyday life that no one thinks about helping them with?

Ultimately though, I need to remember struggle is often productive.  I absolutely needed help navigating the bank, but once that was sorted out, the worst thing that happened to me today was I oogled over my friends’ toasted sandwiches while eating cold bread and ham wrapped in aluminum foil, and I had to abandon half of my fries.

Now I know.  I am learning.  And I am extra-motivated to figure out Spanish food phrases.

Moving into the year, I want to ask myself- is this a bank issue or a potatoes problem? I’m here to help my students with the bank issues, but for the small potatoes, I want to be there to cheer them on as they figure it out themselves.