‘Capitalize’ on language experiences in everyday life

Like the majority of adult language learners who are not learning in an immersion-style setting, my vocabulary is bound by the content of my college coursework. I have made it to the 400 level of Spanish and my ears, eyes, and writing hand are fairly comfortable in the language; however, my speaking makes me want to hide, waiting for the words to arrive by pony express. I have had few experiences outside of the classroom to use the language. That is not to say that I don’t have the desire, but as a working mother with a busy family I have not found the time.

Tonight in our translation course, we learned the Spanish equivalent of ‘capital letter’ when our professor realized most of us did not know the word. What a simple thing that I never learned how to express. Suddenly, it was no longer impressive that I can talk about Latin American literature or history in Spanish. I didn’t even know how to say ‘capital letter.’ This is something that all elementary school children know how to say. And what a word it is: mayúscula. It just rolls off the tongue. You can hear a native speaker say it here by clicking on the speaker next to the word. Nice, isn’t it?

When I returned home, simultaneously puffed with pride about my Translation mid-term grade and deflated by my ineptitude, I looked for some Spanish picture books passed along to my son by a friend. They were buried in the toddler-high mountain of books in the corner of our living room. As I turned the cardboard lift-the-flap style pages, I realized I have a gap larger than a mayúscula in my vocabulary. I didn’t know the words for kettle (la pava), windsurfer (el tablista), wheelbarrow (la carretilla), or it’s cousin the forklift (la carretilla elevadora). How can I ever master a language in which I can’t talk about boiling water or hauling stuff? Don’t even get me started about my inability to request una manguera (garden hose) for my flowers. What a useless bore I will be unless I start talking to people about everyday life. There is a limit to how much others are willing to talk about magical realism in a certain Colombian writer’s works.

I had planned to focus on my copy of Spanish for Health Care Professionals to practice medical terminology prior to volunteering at a local health fair in the Hispanic community, but my reading list has now grown. You may also see me lifting the flap and making the connection between la escalera (ladder) and la escalera mecánica (escalator). Don’t judge. I am learning how to explain the easy and the hard way to get to the 5th floor.

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What do Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende, Pablo Neruda and Mario Vargas Llosa have in common?

Their works are being read by yours truly in Spanish! This semester I am delving into the literature portion of my Spanish major and I am elated to be reading untranslated versions of some of the great Latin American writers. It occurred to me as I read some 18th century Latin American literature that I can now officially tackle reading nearly anything in Spanish. I wouldn’t pick up a scientific journal filled with medical research in that language, but I wouldn’t do that in my own native language of English either.

I have cracked the code. Since this is my second (okay, third if you count English) code to break, I can sense the walls surrounding a new set of cultures, literature, and communication disintegrating. Although I have been reading, writing, and communicating entirely in Spanish for a year now in my courses, it was not until I began reading selections from these authors in the past two weeks that I realized I have cracked the code. I read “Feast of the Goat” by Mario Vargas Llosa in English before visiting the Dominican Republic in 2006. Seven years later, I am preparing a presentation in Spanish on this work for my class. I couldn’t be happier to have decided to learn Spanish. It is not easy as a working mom, but with few artistic abilities and not many hobbies I can enjoy at the moment, this is my hobby.

I should include the disclaimer that this code-cracking does not mean I have achieved fluency. Verbal fluency requires much practice, and my class participation is not nearly enough to reach that goal. I am seeking ways to practice with friends old and new in order to improve my conversational Spanish. In the meantime, I can curl up with a book and begin to learn how Spanish speakers construct their worlds through fiction.

Let’s kick it up a notch.

This is week three of my fourth semester of Spanish, and I feel it is a good time to reflect upon when and where I started this third language.

Semester one (Spanish 101 and 102 as bi-terms packed into one semester): Spring of 2011 when I found out I was pregnant with A and most days I was just trying not to puke during class.

Semester two (Spanish 201 and 202 as bi-terms packed into one semester): Spring of 2012 after taking a semester off. A. was just a pup. I missed a couple of weeks when he was in the hospital, so it was like missing a month of a regular semester course.  I was not there when she taught the subjunctive tense. That is my excuse.

Summer 2012- no Spanish whatsoever

Semester three- (Spanish Conversation and Business Spanish, both conducted completely in Spanish): Fall 2012

And now, Spring of 2013, I am in Spanish Composition and Latin American Civilization and Culture.  Both of these courses are delivered entirely in Spanish.  I am still not sure how I do it. It doesn’t make any sense. I know this is not exactly Chinese, but I can’t help but wonder where I might be today if I had picked up on languages much earlier in life when my brain was more supple. French is still my go-to language when I am trying to say something complicated in Spanish, but for the most part I can now listen and understand without translating unconsciously in my head.  That is always a good indicator of progress.

This week I crossed into an entirely new level of comprehension: note taking. I have not taken notes by hand in a class for a very long time in English, so this is definitely a shock to the system.  Tuesday’s Latin American Civilization and Culture course included a whirlwind PowerPoint presentation and my enthusiastic professor’s rapid-fire lecture style.  For the first time, I took lecture notes in Spanish for an hour and a half, listening ahead as my hand tried to keep up. My first instinct was to translate into English for future reference, but I soon realized twenty words in that it simply would not do. In my defense, this would not have been such a big deal if we were not dealing with Mayan, Aztec and Inca place names and terminology mixed in with the Spanish explanations.  One can barely write out Tenochtitlán, Huitzilopochtli and Moctezuma II  before the professor is on to the next empire. She ended the class with a pop quiz including information given that day in class. Thank goodness I could listen, comprehend and write at the same time.

In addition to note taking, I am also composing essays for my composition course. I really love this course, and I have found that the exercise of selecting le mot juste (French phrase for ‘just the right word’) for essays ensures that I learn about 20 new words each night.

I am not sure how I might use this knowledge of Spanish in the future, but for now I am enjoying the process of cracking a new code.

Is he trying to tell me something? A focus on my lack of bilingual parenting confidence:

I have been absent from this blog. I have been ashamed. I have been doubtful. I have been lazy. I have felt conflicted.

It’s a new year, however, and while I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, I do see this as a nice time to determine a new approach. I just spoke at length with a colleague who is raising her daughter to speak her native language, Mandarin.  Her daughter is now attending a preschool where English is the only language, and she is adapting to what both my colleague and I have experienced as culture shock, or even more specifically, language shock. The difference is that we both experienced this as adults and she is experiencing it at 3. The similarity is that her daughter is asking how to say practical things first, such as, “I need a tissue” because she has a runny nose, or “may I go in here?” She desperately wants to not feel shy to ask the other kids to play, but she is taking care of the other things first. I find this fascinating because any time I am immersed in a language with which I am unfamiliar, I also wonder how I will find the bathroom, take a cab, conduct transactions, etc. before I worry about knowing how to invite someone to dinner or ask about their family. Runny noses and bathroom breaks come first at any age, I suppose.

When our conversation concluded, I came back to my desk and mentally addressed what exactly is keeping me from going fully into French mode with my toddler 100% of the time.  I came up with the following:

  1. I seem to have internalized so many of the doubts people have about bilingual education rather than focusing on the benefits.  My confidence in the process is flagging.
  2. I have been so excited when A. says, “dog,” or “sock,” that I want to encourage him by saying in English, “yes, brilliant boy! That is a dog!” I want to use those English words in other English sentences to give him the confidence to continue using them. I am uncertain how to reward him for growing his English vocabulary and simultaneously reinforce the French.
  3. I can’t find French toddlers in my community. I just don’t think there are any. At some point, he needs peers to encourage him.
  4. I don’t have the support I need for maintaining and further developing my own French. I need French friends. See #3 above.
  5. Finally, I am immersed in Spanish classes throughout the semester, and that is what I am using all the time. I have friends with whom I can practice the language. There are plenty of Spanish speakers in the community; however, I am not comfortable enough yet with Spanish to feel I can confidently teach it to A. Spanish is not yet as instinctual as French, and yet I find French fading quickly for me. I wonder if I am going to miss my window for sharing the second language with him in the process of gaining my third language.

My approach is going to be using French as much as possible, but allowing myself to not feel the pressure of all or nothing.  Just last night, as A. was sluggishly trying to play while battling a fever, he was more cuddly than normal because he didn’t feel well. He kept bringing me a book that is in French called, “Pou-poule” about a chicken who runs away with a fox. He loves when I read this book (I like to use silly voices for the chickens talking). I realized that some of the books that he loves the most and wants to hear the most are the ones that are in French. Maybe I should stop worrying about how much and how often, and just live a bilingual (multilingual) life as a model. Hopefully he will grow up thinking this is normal, and I will have given him enough French (and maybe one day Spanish) to give him an edge if he decides to continue them. If, in the process, I begin using more French, so be it. It does have to be fun or neither of us will keep it up.

Tonight, as his father is out of town, it makes perfect sense to have an all French night and just see how it goes. If dogs and socks come into the conversation, they are welcome too!

Honoring friends in Spanish

It’s been a long while since I last wrote, but I assure you my Spanish studies have continued. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about my consistent French with my toddler. It is a constant struggle to balance English and French. Isn’t it almost time for New Year’s resolutions?

Later today, I will make a presentation in my Spanish conversation course. We were asked to give a presentation over an issue in a Latin American country. Since we have talked about environmental issues this semester, I decided to honor my friend Arturo with a presentation on his work with, and passion for, sea turtles.  Arturo spent years researching sea turtles in Costa Rica and St. Eustacia, and I have learned enough over the years from him to give a decent introduction of the topic and the urgency of the problem.

I have always considered Arturo as somewhat of a hero for his dedication to his work, and for following his passion and turning it into a career.  Today, it is even more special because I can honor him in my third language. Just like my experience this year at the radio station, I can’t believe I can actually present something interesting in Spanish.  It is so rewarding, and when I can use it to brag on an old friend, it becomes a great milestone.

Now, about that French…what am I going to do? Anyone using a non-native language with their child have recommendations for how to not slip into your native language? Maybe a small shock collar tuned to English?

On the air

Today I did something I never would have imagined two years ago. I recorded a future radio broadcast in Spanish with two classmates on the topic of soccer (fútbol).  This nine minute segment will be included in one of the upcoming Spanish language radio programs, airing every Sunday afternoon.  We did it in one take. I was nervous, and I know my Spanish was not perfect, but the smile on the producer’s face when we finished made my day.

Teachers, take heed: this was a very fun and rewarding experience for a conversational Spanish course!  The exercise required group work, practice perfecting pronunciation, and bridges the gap between campus and the local Hispanic community.

Now that the kiddo is in bed, this multilingual mama is going to wrap up her Spanish blog entry, study for tomorrow’s exam, and then curl up with her French language version of Anna Karenina. Just to see if 1) my brain can handle the switch, and 2) I can stay awake for more than 2 pages.

Snot by any other name is still snot.

My French vocabulary is expanding in ways I had never imagined as I speak French with my kiddo.  Last night, as I watched him practice crawling and performing various yoga moves I will never be able to emulate, I hit a roadblock in my conversation. I said, in French, “Let’s go wipe the…the…how do you say it in English? Snot?…off your face.”

Feeling like a sixth grader looking up bad words in the dictionary (I am sure they just Google it on their smartphones now), I had to look up snot. I don’t have the large desk-sized version of the Robert dictionary you French majors may have lugged around. I don’t even have the Petit Robert.  I have a small highly abridged version. I didn’t expect to find it, but there it was. In fact, not only did it tell me how to say snot (morve, f.), but it told me how to say “snotty adj. (as in children)- morveaux.”

I looked up snot in my Spanish dictionary next. Technology is great for quick answers, but I still love my dictionaries. It’s “mocos” in Spanish. As I contemplated the various ways I can sneak this into my Spanish Conversation course this Fall, I realized that the only Swedish word I remember from my friendship with some Swedish exchange students years ago is “slem,” or, snot. We were walking through arctic conditions on the UK campus, and the topic came up as the substance was forming ice on our faces.  Okay, it felt arctic to me. I am sure they thought it felt like home.

The point of all this is that until you know how to say random and seldom-taught vocabulary words such as snot, raccoon and spark plug in your target language, you have a lot of dictionary/smartphone time in your future. May all of them be as fun as snot, er, morve. I just hope you don’t need to know because someone is waiting for you to wipe it from their face.