Rainy day Spanish – when you’re all alone

OAXACA, Mexico.

As a farm boy, a rainy day meant staying indoors, freed from chores, with “nothing” to do but read books.  I fell in love with reading and rainy days.  If  you live in a desert, you can declare for yourself a ‘rainy day” and take up reading – in Spanish!  Here’s how it works:

Julita, a Mexican friend, arrived in Minnesota twenty-five years ago with two small children.  She didn’t speak English and neither did they.  Being an intelligent and determined woman, she supported her family by cleaning, and set about learning English on her own.   Her children are now adults and native speakers in both languages, and she talks as readily in one tongue as the other.  How did she do it?

She read to her children.  Not the simplest children’s books, but books with characters and plots.  Her favorite was the “Amerlia Bedelia” series.  These books revolve around literalness, figures of speech, and the humorous mishaps of Amelia.  But she told me – with a smile –  she read mostly for herself.

Like Julita, I stumbled upon the same strategy early in my Spanish studies.  Without forethought, I bought a memoir about growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the late 1940s.  The author is my contemporary in age and a university professor in California.  He wrote a simple narrative at a 9th grade level.  I caught the drift of the story, but not the color and details.  Those I looked up.  Unfamiliar words on the page revealed themselves when I sounded them out (as we did as grade-school children).  Soon, I read aloud, just under my breath, and the story took on greater depth and meaning.  Somehow, hearing the word as I read it increased my comprehension.

Although I’m fluent now, and sight-read Spanish, I continue to read aloud, particularly when I’m not in Mexico.  Reading aloud is a good strategy and I believe sharpens several language skills at the same time.

Imprinting the language:

1) I learn the words as I speak them.  This seems to imprint the words in my memory for pronunciation and meaning.  (There is research that combining learning with a physical act strengthens retention.)

2) Besides receiving the word visually, I hear it as well in my own voice.  Letters and sounds go together as a single action.  This makes it easier to recognize the word when I hear someone say it.

Physical training:

3) By reading aloud I practice the physical act of making the sounds.  Some sounds are not as easy to make as others, such as the rolled R – as in “perro,” or the sound of double L as in “llamar.”   Unlike English, Spanish articulates every vowel separately, and this isn’t always easy to do.  Reading aloud helps to train the muscles of my tongue to make the sounds it’s not accustomed to making.  Think of reading aloud as a “work-out” for your tongue muscles.

Linkages:

4) Reading aloud creates linkages between sight and sound with words commonly used phrases, such as “asi como” “antes de que,” and others that stitch together nouns and verbs.  When reading, we tend to see one word of phrase at a time.  But speaking is an almost unbroken flow of sounds.  Native speakers often fuse the sounds of words to the point non-native speakers can’t distinguish them.  (We do this in English, too:  “seeya later,” “doncha know”, etc.)  If we’re not attuned to the sounds as they link and fuse, we may quickly lose the thread of the conversation.  Reading aloud can help create and reinforce these links.

Rhythm:

5) There is rhythm to the spoken word.  We all have a distinctive, individual rhythm speech that identifies us as surely as a photo.  We instantly recognize friend or family by their voice over the phone.  Reading aloud – but particularly if the book has dialogues – may help develop your particular rhythm, one that is natural to you.  Speaking naturally will improve your confidence as well as your fluency.

Try this:

If you already know even a little Spanish, buy a Spanish language book (children’s or young adult) that fits your level of fluency.  Then read aloud to yourself and listen to your voice.  You may not understand all the words the first time through.  In fact, I can almost guarantee you won’t, unless you bought a book below your level of experience.  But read slightly above your level, underline words you don’t understand, and continue reading.  You will likely re-read a paragraph or sentence; and when you do, check to see if the context tells you something about the underlined words.  If you have to look them up, do it later rather than break your rhythm and concentration.

I still do this as an exercise.  A friend recently gave me a book of Mexican short stories; the writing is literary, the plots are subtle, and some of the words escape me.   I often reread paragraphs, even whole pages, before I get it.  But it strengthens my vocabulary.  I carry this or other books with me and read while waiting to meet a friend.  I also have some bi-lingual anthologies of short stories, but I’m not convinced they’re as helpful.  To me, at least.   But that’s a personal preference.

Yesterday, I spent several hours in the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, in the galleries of artifacts from the early period of Zapotec culture.  Besides the cards identifying the fetishes and funeral objects, there were panels explaining the background and details of the culture.  I read them aloud, just under my breath, my whispers floating down the empty hallways.  I read aloud as fast as my eyes could sweep over the words, and the comprehension was complete.  When I stopped reading aloud (because someone was close to me), my rate of comprehension slowed noticeably.  Why?  For all the reasons I’ve outlined above, I suppose.

To repeat something I’ve said before: language is more than words.  It is also a physical activity that engages our brain, our emotions, and the muscles of our mouths.  All must work together if we are communicate and understand the words of others, whether written or spoken.  I believe effective language learning requires careful attention to and training of these distinct parts of our being: mind, body, and soul.

To sum up:  Reading aloud is an easy but effective way to boost your language capacity.  It’s cheap.  You can do it anywhere, at any time, when you’re alone.  And who knows, you may look forward to rainy days.

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