At the end of my first day of my first immersion at the Spanish Institute of Puebla, Claudia assigned “tarea” or homework: Write ten sentences in the “co-preterito” or past imperfect. You know, the sentences that say “I used to do this,” or “I was doing this.”
Ten sentences in the imperfect! That’s all? Ten random sentences in the past perfect? I can do that in twenty minutes! That’s not much of an assignment. I expect something more for my fee! So I set to make it something more and found a strategy that worked well for me – then and now.
The imperfect is ideal for narratives and description. That evening, I hit on telling a story I might relate in a conversation. Sitting at my small desk, I thought about a story of ten or a dozen lines. It wasn’t anything serious, just an episode with a beginning, middle and end. Then I picked the verbs I wanted for the imperfect and wrote them across the top of the page.
Then a decision: Write the story in English and then translate or rewrite it in Spanish? Or just plunge into Spanish and start writing? Writing in English struck me as half-hearted – almost cheating – and self-defeating. Writing in Spanish meant thinking in Spanish, and wasn’t that the point of immersion – to learn to think and speak in Spanish?
After two hours and a couple false starts, I finished a one-page story I was proud to hand in the next day. Besides the ten sentences in the imperfect, the narrative needed a few in the present and future tenses. I gave it to Claudia, she put on her glasses, and read it. She said nothing, but looked at me with a question in her eyes, as if awaiting an explanation.
In halting Spanish, I said writing a story seemed like the best way to practice the imperfect in a context. This seemed to me a good way to create a coherent relationship among the sentences was to write them the way I would say them in a conversation. This way I can get used to handling several verbs in shaping a story.
She smiled and nodded. “Si,” she agreed. Thereafter, I wrote essays, short stories, and opinion pieces every day during each of the five immersions. As my Spanish improved over time, I wrote longer stories, developed characters and plots, and gave them richer details and greater nuance. My writings ranged over simple narratives, humor, short fiction, and political editorials.
The point of writing
But, you say, I don’t like to write. All I want to do is learn to speak the language, not write it. I understand. Many of us find writing a chore, and sometimes it is. None the less, we all know how to write – however poorly we do it. Writing is a part of language; our capacity to write is integrally linked to our capacity to think, to feel, and to speak. All of these functions work together in to create language. Writing – however poorly done – can improve our fluency.
Don’t think you have to come up with the “Great Mexican Novel.” Let’s be pragmatic.
Writing makes visible our speech, our thoughts or the fruits of our thought. When we write, we can see our thoughts, we can save them, refine them, correct them, and return to them again and again. If nothing else, our writing becomes a personal artifact of intellectual archaeology. And as an artifact, your essay, opinion piece, letter, or short story in Spanish provides you and your teacher with a map of how our mind works with the language. Don’t fret about the sophistication of what your write. It’s not the story you tell that’s so important, it’s HOW you tell it.
Writing saves our thoughts in a moment of time, a reference point in our development as Spanish speakers. Why? From essay to essay, our writings create benchmarks for measuring our progress toward fluency. With our teacher, we can identify the chronic weak spots in our grammar, syntax, or conjugation (and we all have weak spots). After a few essays, we can identify patterns: habitual errors, missed accents, failure to use the subjunctive in subordinate clauses, misplaced direct and indirect object pronouns, and more. All of this information helps to set our priorities for improvement. Through triage, if nothing else, we can tackle one problem at a time. And a periodic comparison of essays will reveal the progress we are truly making.
Writing takes a little planning. And planning makes our task easier. Ah! The question: What am I going to write about?
Pick something simple; maybe something simple you know how to do and describe that to an imaginary Spanish speaker. Or write about an episode from childhood, or about your dog. It doesn’t matter what the topic is as long as it’s something you like. The more you like the topic, the easier it is to write about it. But keep it simple so your mental energy goes into the language rather than the theme.
Think about how this story relates to and will be useful in working through the problem you have with a category of conjugation, a grammatical tense, or vocabulary. It may be verbs in the conditional, indirect object pronouns, or “modismos” or colloquialisms.
Don’t try to cram two or three problem areas into one essay. Use triage. One problem area per essay. As you review your work,
If you’re not a writer by nature, you may still feel stumped for a theme. If you are, play this little game. Select words from the category you are working with (let’s say it’s verbs) and write them across the top of the page. Okay: Now you have verbs but they are unrelated. Your task is to create a story line that puts these verbs into a logical relationship. Think of them like the magnetic words on the refriderator door – words you can re-arrange to make different sentences.
Dollars to donuts, with a smidgen of imagination, the verbs will “suggest” the story line to you. Words have friends, and as soon as you put down one word, that word invites another, and very soon they invite more words and you have a sentence. Once that happens, the rest is easy. Or easier. The juxtaposition of verbs suggested possibilities I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.
No matter where you are in your pusuit of Spanish, try writing as a way to confront problems with grammar and syntax. Take an aspect of vocabulary or grammar that is particularly difficult and make an assignment. Think of a story or a dialogue between characters that will cause you to use the part of the language that is most difficult in the moment. Put the key words at the top of the page and start writing.
Like physical exercise, the effort will strengthen and expand your capacity to use the tenses (say, the subjunctive), the indirect object pronouns, etc. with ease. I’ve read that this kind of effort creates new neural pathways. Maybe so. I do know, however, the effort smooths out rough places in my Spanish. Who knows, you may enjoy it!