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.


  1. Great post! Yup. It's your brain what did it. The process can be supported and speeded up though, have a listen to this audio case study of a Chinese English learner who spoke like a beginner after 16 years of formal study then jumped to a comfy intermediate in just six sessions

    Really great to read a teacher who has used read methods explain acquisition from a personal perspective. Thanks and sorry for posting the link but I think you will find it intrresting.

  2. Dang it, you stole my post! My "a-ha!" moment was the other day when I realized I had selected my cleaning supplies after reading all the labels. Sounds stupid, maybe, but I couldn't have done that simple task back in September.

    I've been working on a draft similar to your entry for a while now. Some days, people are impressed by my Spanish. Other days, I can't believe how wide the gap is between my brain and mouth when I'm trying to say something intelligent at the teacher's lunch table. It'll come, everyone keeps telling me, but living with Americans and pretending to speak only English while at school isn't helping too much.

    "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'm hoping this is true for me as well! Was great to read!

  3. you never give yourself enough credit. nevertheless, i'm glad that you've finally had enough proof to acknowledge your break through. AND, now you can return to memphis and properly express your love for prof. fenwick (: --stacey

  4. Aside from sacrificing a limb for Rosetta Stone, tell me how I can learn some Spanish before July. :)