Friday, September 30, 2005

Hablo Espanol

The best Spanish instructors Portsmouth Middle School, Portsmouth High School, and New York University could provide did little to teach me Spanish. After three and a half years in the Rhode Island public schools I placed in the lowest possible Spanish class at NYU.

After two semesters at NYU there was another placement test. I failed it and had to take an additional semester to advance in their program. Then I struggled through another three terms, spending nearly $20,000 on the language, though never learning with certainty how to say the words “Twenty-thousand dollars.”

I had a sense though as Spain approached, that a funny thing had happened to my Spanish. None of the first 18 countries I visited this year were Spanish speaking, but by picking up a few words of Thai, Nepalese, Dutch, and French, I’d learned something about languages: You don’t need to know much to get by.

In Barcelona, Spanish felt like a native tongue. Instead of only knowing “hello” and “thank you” I could say real words and even conjugate the odd verb. Anaelle—who had been my French guide in France—sat back and let me be her Spanish guide in Spain. And by God, I could do it. With pretty much everyone I traveled with in Spain, I served as the Spanish speaker.

In school, as the middling grades piled up, I became aware of how little I knew. I was paralyzed into silence by a fear that I’d screw up the preterite or destroy the grammar of a simple sentence.

I’m not sure what the teachers could have done differently; I didn’t know Spanish and the other students did and they had to give me a crappy grade. But it would have been nice to know back then that I knew enough. If you can put the right verb next to the right noun they’ll figure it out.

Immersion is the only way to really learn a language, people like to say. For me, the word immersion always conjured up images of drowning. But maybe it’s more like scuba diving—you aren’t going to drown but you’ll learn to swim. So I’ve swam around Spain a little bit, and it’s been nice.


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