18 January 2011

Evolutionary Linguistics

(image courtesy of MIT OpenCourseWare via Dr. Orin Percus)
Learning another language is quite the difficult beast. Heck, I have a master's degree that touched heavily on the subject, and I still don't even really get it all that much. Perhaps those are unsettling words coming from someone who has spent the last three years getting paid to teach languages to children, but the truth hurts.

While I have been studying the Spanish language for about ten years now, I have never consciously charted my own progress or even really actively used the language for practical purposes until now. Yes, I spent two years teaching it, and I went to Mexico and Peru on some exciting excursions, but you would be unpleasantly surprised at how little Spanish you have to use in those situations. While a Spanish teacher, I taught a lot of grammar, reading and listening for two reasons. One, teaching speaking is an insanely complicated task that is nearly impossible in a traditional classroom, and my lack of teaching experience led me to stick to the easier-to-teach aspects of language acquisition. And, two, my lack of mastery of improvisational spoken Spanish made it a seemingly wiser decision to avoid having to speak in a spontaneous manner in front of a group of students who expected me to be a master of the art. I had enough trouble in the situation that I was in for two years as a high school teacher on the south side of Chicago; I didn't need my students, most of whom, mind you, could have beaten me to a pulp with their pinky finger, thinking that ole' teach wasn't even knowledgeable of the subject that he was proposing to teach them. So, I stuck to the bread and butter.

Nowadays, I do live in a Spanish speaking country, but you might be surprised at how much Spanish I don't speak. Of course, whenever I have to interact with people in public, whether to conduct my personal business or to meet acquaintances in some form or fashion, I have to whip out my Spanish skills and hope not to embarrass myself...too much, but I work in English and most of my friends are English speakers. While I use Spanish on a semi-regular basis, many of you know that I have been rather disappointed with how much Spanish that I have spoken since I arrived. I expected to be entirely immersed in the language, speaking English only at work and when I was talking to friends at home. Quickly, I learned that this was not to be the case, and I have been weary of eventually leaving Spain without the Spanish tongue that I came here to get.

When I first arrived to Spain, having spontaneous conversations with people, especially when I needed that conversation to result in a service being provided, an item being purchased or a question being answered, made me shake in my proverbial boots. Watching TV in Spanish was a lost cause, and trying to talk to my Spanish roommate was like making a drunk baby discuss politics with James Carville, impossible and downright embarrassing. And, for the better part of my four months here, I have felt as though there has been little change. But, recently, I have had a bit of an epiphany...

Over the past few weeks, I have caught myself speaking without thinking, understanding mumble and even dreaming a bit in my second language. While I am still not perfect and by no means a native speaker, I have all of a sudden perceived a seemingly drastic change in my language. When people stop to ask me directions on the street, I can understand their formerly understood-to-be-jibberish question and answer them without worry. When I meet new Spanish folks in various social settings and encounters, I am able to talk to them about my job, my experiences in Spain and other aspects of my life that were, until recently, locked in a vault in my brain, sealed with an encrypted combination of rolling r's and difficult to pronounce c's, z's and d's. I watch TV shows and movies in Spanish with ease, and reading the paper or listening to a random radio broadcast or other speaker-delivered media is not so bad anymore, either. In a nutshell, my Spanish skills have gotten better. Much better.

This epiphany, of sorts, may come as a surprise to some people who might question how I couldn't have noticed myself getting progressively better as the days painfully passed by, but I would challenge those naysayers to entertain my explanation...

Monitoring the daily progress of language acquisition is like trying to notice the daily growth of a child or of a skyscraper being built. Those who live with or have lived with children know that the "sudden" sprouting of their offspring from baby to young adult is not actually so sudden. It is, however, our recognition of the growth that causes it to be perceived as sudden. Someone who drives by the construction site of a new vertical monstrosity tends to be oblivious to the progress of the building's ascent, but after she has stopped paying attention to the hard hats, beer bellies and cat calls, she looks up one day and is blown away by how far in the sky she has to peer. Well, amigos, this, too, is the story of language acquisition. There are too many factors, too many variables that play into learning a new language to be able to watch it grow in the traditional sense. One must step back and ignore the urge to hurry-up-and-wait, and then one day, when he least expects it, BAM, he is miraculously speaking in another language, never mind how basic or simple his conversations may be. Before he even has time to notice, along come more complicated discussions and the unexplainable entertaining of more spontaneous expression. You see, acquiring a language is like finding your soulmate; it will never happen if you're constantly on the look out, but the moment you forget to look, things magically fall into place.

My language journey is finally starting to come full circle. Teacher is becoming student, and all of those things that I used to tell my students are actually turning out to be true. Listening to the conversations on the metro, the arguments between colleagues and the sweet nothings being whispered in the park by the countless teenagers who seem to be quite curious about what their friend's face, nose and neck taste like has actually paid off. Fighting through countless Spanish TV shows and struggling to converse about even the simplest things has secretly led to a gradual increase in my language abilities, so gradual that I didn´t even notice it. All the while, I thought that I didn't understand what was going on, but my crafty brain has been soaking up language the whole time without me even knowing.

I am, as you might have expected, rather pleased with my recent realization. Of course, even with my aforementioned leap of progress, or better said, my crawl of progress that I have no choice but to perceive as a leap, I still have my issues. I have an obvious accent, a somewhat limited vocabulary and I can't talk about quantum physics or the development of communism in 1950s Cuba, at least, not in Spanish. But, with these ever present limitations, I am getting better, and at this point, better is good. Really good.

14 January 2011

Looking Forward Through a Foggy Window

Today, as I sit and write, the world has been rotating for exactly 4 months since I left the United States and came to Spain. Of course, it took me 9 hours to get here (12 if you count my layover in Dallas), and I didn't actually arrive until the 15th at 10am Madrid time, but you get my point.

When looking back over the past year, I peer with humility and awe, astounded by how much stuff actually went on in my life and how lucky I have been just about every step of the way. In 2010, I graduated with my Master's, traveled to Mexico for the first time, finished my commitment to Teach For America, quit my job as a high school teacher, went to Florida on vacation with my family for the first time since I was 9, lived at home for 6 weeks, moved to Spain, began teaching elementary school English, went to 3 different cities in Spain, went to Rome, went to Paris and went to Amsterdam. I met some amazing people along the way and made some great memories. I left a life I had created in the states to pursue another across the world. The first half of 2010 was spent working hard, and the second half was spent hardly working.

I am very happy with the way that the year turned out. I made some big decisions, made some serious leaps, and I have grown a lot along the way. As 2011 has now begun, I am doing my best to continue to enjoy the present, but it is about "that time" when I should be contemplating the future. What I am going to do next year is entirely up to me, and the phrase "the world is at your fingertips" applies to me now more than ever. I have a few options and even more thoughts, but I really have no idea what I want just yet.

I can stay here in Spain next year if I'd like. I have not been formally offered my job again, but I have been informally told by my coordinator that it would not be a problem if I wanted to stay. My school is great, the teachers that I work with are great and I love my kids. Madrid is a great city with lots to offer. It is the cultural hub of Spain and the travel and business center. I love it here, but I still can't decide if I want to stay. I could reapply for the program next year in another region of Spain, doing my exact same job but in a different city (I get priority for being a renewal, so if I apply, I am guaranteed acceptance). Much like the United States, the various autonomous regions of Spain are very distinct, and while I would be in the same country, I would be in a very different place.

I can try to find work in another country, doing something along the same lines as I am doing here or working in some sort of volunteer capacity. I have already done some research on some projects in Central and South America, but I have not found anything solid to really look into. Finding work in another country is very difficult, and volunteer opportunities are usually expensive. Either way, I am counting this idea as an option.

I could go back to the United States and find work there. I have a Master's in teaching and 3 years of experience. I am also certified in the state of Illinois. So, I think that if I went back to the States, I could find something to occupy my time. I have applied for a job with Teach For America that, if I am offered the position, could land me in Chicago, New York City, Washington DC, Atlanta or Nashville; however, even if I am offered the job, I am not necessarily obligated to take it. I will have to look at everything very carefully and decide what is best for me.

The point is, I am terribly confused about what I want, but the bright side is that I do have options. The job in Spain is all but a guarantee if I want it, either in Madrid or in another region. The job in the States is definitely not a guarantee, but I have just as good a chance as any other person applying. I speak Spanish fluently and have international experience, which means that I am appealing to nonprofit organizations looking for cheap labor in the southern hemisphere. And, I have teaching credentials and could do that pretty much anywhere in the States.

Except for teaching in the States again, all of my options sound quite appealing. I love it here in Spain, and I am having the time of my life traveling around Europe. But, do I want to stay? If yes, in Madrid or in another region? I love the idea of traveling to another country and doing some sort of exotic work. But, will I get lonely? The prospect of going back to the Chicago (or somewhere else in the States) and picking back up with my normal life is also attractive. But, would I just get antsy again and run away to some random country to "find myself"?

These are the thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for some time now, and the clock is rapidly ticking to the time when I actually have to decide. When looking at the timetables of my various options, I have calculated that I have until about mid March, maybe April until I have to make a decision.  I have 3 months-ish before I need to figure out what my next 12 will hold.

I'll figure it out. Either that, or I'll just pick something and go with it. The adventure of it all is exciting and not knowing is part of what makes my current life sexy, but being confused about what you want to do with your life (even if it is only the next year of it) can be a bit unnerving. My only choice is to keep living and learning, and eventually, something will come to me and I will make a choice.

This time next year, will I be in Madrid? Somewhere else in Spain? Somewhere in else in the world? Chicago? The States?

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea.

11 January 2011

Holiday Travels

Over the past few weeks, I have been traveling quite a bit. One of the perks of being a teacher is that you get an extended holiday break, and in Spain that means 17 days of rest and relaxation, or in my case, travel. I spent a long time contemplating how I would spend those 17 days, and in the beginning I had grandiose ideas of hopping from place to place with a confidence and swagger that now seems ridiculous. After settling into my life here, I realized that money was going to be more of an issue than I had once thought, and as a result I pared down my holiday travel plans to just a couple of places, and, now having completed the journies, I´m glad that I took the modest route.

After some consideration and collaboration with friends, I settled on three places for my holiday travels, Amsterdam, the Alps, and Geneva. Amsterdam would be my Christmas destination, while the Alps and Geneva would be a beginning of January treat. In between these trips, I would spend time in Madrid, ringing in the New Year in my new, albeit temporary, home.

A look down one of Amsterdam's
many canals
Amsterdam turned out to be an amazing city and one that I hope to visit more throughout my life. The people were nice, the atmosphere was relaxed, and the city was beautiful. Over 70% of people speak at least two languages in the Netherlands, and most of those 70% speak English as their number two. Dutch and English are actually quite similar, and listening to Dutch is like listening to someone speak jibberish English. The cadence is the same, the inflection is the same, but the words are slightly different. Food in Amsterdam is not anything particularly special, but it is also not particularly expensive, which is a plus. The canals that run through the city, built in the 17th century for residential development and defense purposes, turn the city into a grid of beautiful bridges, boats, and closely knit houses. Bicycles rule Amsterdam, with over 50% of its street traffic comprised of bikers. A light rail runs throughout the city, connecting the various areas of the already small community via a cheap and efficient system. Amsterdam is clean, not over populated, and it doesn´t try to wow you with any sort of ridiculous gimmicks or flashy innovations; its simply a nice place to be.

While in Amsterdam, I walked around taking pictures and eating various foods from street vendors and restauranteurs. The highlights, however, were the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. The Van Gogh Museum is a collection of over 200 of the famous impressionist´s works, displayed in chronological order and narrated with amazingly detailed literary murals. The museum is small, so as not to be overwhelming, and the art is incredible. Van Gogh perfected the art of appearing to have no idea what he was doing. At first glance, one might even think that a child was the artist, but upon studying the brushstrokes and intentions that are imbedded in the works, Van Gogh´s genius quickly becomes evident. Some of his most famous works are housed in this museum, while others spend their days traveling around the world for all to see. Following the halls of the museum and, consequently, the natural progression of Van Gogh´s work, I was able to gain a stronger appreciation for his talents and his niche in the art world.

The front door of the office building
where the Frank family was in hiding
The Anne Frank House was, hands down, my favorite part of Amsterdam. As a history nerd (coincidentally with a history degree), I was quite excited to be able to step into a piece of history as well known and heartwrenching as this. Having read Anne´s diary in middle school (but regrettably having forgotten most of its contents), I am aware of the story of her family and their attempt to hide from the Nazis. Approaching the building which houses the museum and which, at one point, was the office in which the Frank family hid, I was excited and nervous at the same time. I knew that I would have some strange emotions once inside, reading plaques, viewing pictures, and listening to audio about a 13 year old girl and her family who were all but one killed because of their genetic make-up, but I wasn´t quite sure how exactly I would feel. Inside the museum, no one spoke. I found this to be incredible, considering that your average Joe has no idea when to respectfully keep his thoughts to himself. I have walked the halls of the Vatican, stood in the depths of the Sistine Chapel, and peered at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and during each of these experiences, silence was nowhere near. At the Anne Frank House, silence reigned, and rightfully so. As I and fellow travelers walked through the secret annex and loft of 267 Prinsengracht, we couldn´t help but feel humbled at what we were witnessing. There, in that very house, in those very rooms, lived one of the most recognized families of the 20th century, a family that, like thousands of others, was subject to the wrath of a regime more evil than most of us can conceive. Standing in the room where Anne slept, where she spent most of her time studying languages, reading books, and, most notably, writing her diary, was the most moving of the entire experience. The 13 year old girl who spoke well beyond her years and whose diary has been read by millions and continues to be a living testament to courage and resilience against all odds, spent two years of her tender life hiding from people whom she had never met because of something that was no fault of her own. Knowing what happened to her at the end of it all, and helplessly recognizing that even if I were alive during that time, I could have done nothing to help, is a hard pill to swallow. To describe my visit to the Anne Frank Museum as fun or entertaining would be to show no respect to the atrocities that took place there and the others that it represents. Rather, my Christmas morning stroll through the secret annex of the Frank family and their friends was very much as I expected it to be, enlightening, upsetting, and most of all, humbling.

At the end of the tour of the museum, I bought a copy of Anne´s diary. I have read it once before, but I was a child and was only able to understand it within particular contexts. Now, as an adult, I am tackling the book again and with great pleasure. I have read about half of it so far, and at times, I have trouble putting it down. As I read, I am delighted, sad, encouraged, and angry all at the same time. Sometimes I laugh at cute things that she says while other times I cringe in anger at the knowledge of how the story ultimately ends. I know that I will be a better person for having read the book and digested it thoroughly, but the process is a bit challenging emotionally, to say the least.

After Amsterdam, I returned to Madrid to rest and relax for 8 days. During that week plus one, I spent the days with friends, exploring the city and just hanging out. We stayed up too late, slept too long, and did nothing of any real consequence, but it was a good respite. In the middle of those 8 days was New Years, and I spent that in La Puerta del Sol, counting down the seconds and eating grapes at the stroke of midnight.

A view of the Alps in Chamonix
After New Years, I headed to Chamonix, France, in the southeast of the country. There, along with another friend of mine, I skiied in the Alps and took in the natural scenery. The Alps were incredibly breathtaking, and while I took several pictures, they do little justice at portraying the true majesty that these mountains possess. Skiing down the mountain and looking out at some of the most beautiful landscapes that the earth has to offer was surreal, to say the least. At the foot of the tallest mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc, my hostel was home to several passing travelers, many of whom were quite good company. I met people from Finland, Australia, England, Poland, and France. I cooked my dinners on a camping stove and wore two pairs of pants to stay warm, all worth it in the end. Chamonix is a town much like those in Colorado that serve the same purpose. It is a ski town, full of transient people looking to enjoy the slopes, some for a few days and some for the whole 5 month season. It was a pleasant place to make a quick stop, and skiing at my doorstep was definitely the highlight.

After Chamonix, I headed to Geneva, Switzerland for a day before making the trek back to Madrid. In Geneva, I was able to see the European headquarters of the United Nations, the Red Cross Museum (just the outside, as it was closed when we arrived), and lake Geneva. I ate Swiss chocolate, walked the streets of old Geneva, and strolled across a lighted bridge that spans one of the most famous bodies of inland water in the world. For dinner, my friend and I decided on an Iranian restaurant, which turned out to be an excellent choice. No one there spoke English, and I surely do not speak French, but it was not really a problem. With a few points, grunts, clicks, and whistles, I was able to order and dine with ease. The food was incredible, and while I could not understand a word that they said, the staff seemed to be quite agreeable. After dinner, we headed back to our hostel, and at 4am, we were on our way to the airport to head back to our temporary home. Our vacation was over.

My holiday travels were amazing, and I cherished every moment. I saw some amazing sites, ate some incredible food, did some unforgettable things, and relaxed a bit along the way. I missed Christmas with the family and my little sister´s 16th birthday, but Skype was able to connect us for a bit, which is better than nothing. During these holidays, I was able to take advantage of the longest break that I will have here and perhaps one of the most convenient traveling times of my life. I am quite pleased with my travels and with the memories that I now have of my experiences. And, while I have no trips planned until my Morocco excursion in April, I will be searching for an interim destination with which to fuel my appetite for travel.

Next stop? We´ll see.

To see my pictures of Amsterdam, click here.

To see my pictures of Chamonix and the Alps, click here.

To see my pictures of Geneva, click here.