The Native-speaker’s Ear

So, you’ve learned a lot of Spanish and Spanish speakers understand you. Some have even complimented you. The affirmation is gratifying and you want more. (We always want more!) And you want to sound a more like a native-speaker. Maybe blend in. Who doesn’t? But is it possible?

Speaking like a native requires mucho más— much, much more—than correct conjugation of the pluperfect  subjunctive or rolling the double ‘rr’ and or elided ‘yh’ sound of the double ‘ll’. Sometimes, speaking a little too perfectly marks you as an outsider, a talking text-book, someone who knows the words but not the language as it is spoken. Listen to yourself speaking English. How many deviations from the grammar books do you hear? Developing your capacity to speak Spanish as natives do requires developing an ‘ear’ to hear the language as they hear it. This is a tall order. Think of it as a journey and not a destination. It’s worth it—vale la pena.

How we speak our tongue is part of our individual and cultural  identity. Our verbal fingerprint is there in our accent, rhythm and phrasing. It tells some people we are a part of their group and tell others we are strangers,  ‘not from around these parts.’

Novels and short stories.

Accents, rhythms and phrasing. As children, we learned to speak mimicking our parents and peers. Their sound patterns trained our ‘ear’ to recognize and mimic the language as they spoke it. I don’t mean only the grammar but the accents, rhythm and phrasing of sentences. I grew up in rural Minnesota but my urban New Jersey-born parents taught me to speak and my English still has strains of the East Coast. Minnesotans pronounce ‘orange’ as  orj but I grew up hearing it is ahranj.

New sounds are often challenging for adults and adult language learners. As we age, a part of our brain gradually tunes out sounds that don’t conform to our native tongue. Adult language learners can master grammar and vocabulary with relative ease but struggle to understand what they hear. Developing the ‘ear’ requires developing the mental circuitry to handle it.

The American South and New England have distinctive accents. Among southerners, the vowels often glide so a word like ‘ride’ is pronounced rod or rad. And you may hear ‘done’  used as an auxiliary as in ‘I done told you.’ New Englanders have a distinct speech with a broad ‘ah’ instead of ‘ar,’ as in ‘don’t pahk yoah cah in Havahd Yahd.’ In Minnesota, our accent is flatter and we are apt to pronounce ‘police’ and ‘insurance’ as ‘p’lice’ and ‘inshurns.’ In the south, the accent falls heavier on first syllables and the words you hear are ‘po-lice’ and ‘in-shurance.’ These dynamics are at work in other countries and languages. In Mexico, for example, I hear subtle (to me) differences in the Spanish of multi-national Mexico City, multi-ethnic Oaxaca and indigenous Cuetzalán of the Sierra Norte.

Idiomatic phrasing is often as telling as an accent. In Minnesota and the upper Midwest, it is common to end phrases and sentences with a preposition or an adverb. You may be asked: ‘Do you want to come with?’ Or to confirm your café order: ‘So, you want cream, then?’ Many sentences begin with ‘you know’ or an agreement ends with ‘that’s for sure’ or ‘you bet.’

Find books on areas you plan to visit.

Acquiring an ‘ear’ for the language means hearing (and thinking) the way a native hears it. This takes time and patience. Becoming a native speaker by intent is a tall order for an adult learner but who doesn’t want to do a little better? So, how can we up our game, as it were? How can we move our already competent grasp of Spanish a notch closer to speaking and comprehending native speech?

Try this: Get some books written in Spanish—not translations from English! Choose children’s or young adult novels or short stories you can easily understand. That way, you can focus on the phrasing and rhythm of the language. Especially, look for books with dialogue between characters. Then read the stories aloud (a whisper is sufficient) and pay attention to the sound. Before long, you’ll feel the rhythm of the language, the rise and fall of the speech. With this practice, you will sharpen your ‘ear’.

If you have a strong interest in a particular Spanish-speaking country, look for novels and short-stories by its authors as idioms differ from one nation to another. As you read these books, make note of how common phrases are put together. Many phrases in English have counterparts in Spanish. You may also notice they don’t translate literally but only figuratively. As you read, you may notice the distinct ‘voices’ of the characters by the words they use and the kinds of phrases they speak. Take notes. Before long, you will ‘hear’ the rhythm and acquire useful phrases inherit to a nation or a region.

Feeling the Language

 

Language takes many forms of expression. Glyph. Oaxaca, Mexico

Can you “feel” the language when you speak Spanish as an unconscious action like riding a bike? That is, the skill comes unconsciously, without fear or thought. Regardless of fluency, you need pluck to meet whatever conversational circumstance you face. Don’t worry about how many words you know or how well you conjugate them. Your fluency will improve the more you forget yourself and concentrate on connecting with the other person. Then you’re too focused to worry about yourself and errors of conjugation or pronunciation.

 

How you feel when you speak–confident, nervous, fearful–will influence how well you speak spanish. Self-awareness is a key to overcoming the barriers to fluency. As a beginning Spanish speaker, I felt anxious about conversations, like a boy on a first date with a girl I liked. Fear of mistakes made me insecure, socially awkward and afraid of looking foolish. The first date was the hardest and I survived it to overcome the fear of self-inflicted rejection or humiliation. Try it. Who knows? You may soon “go steady.”

‘All government is an assassin.’ Graffiti in Oaxaca

Language immersion, formal and informal, gives you the saturation necessary to “feel” the language. By that I mean an intuitive trust the words and phrases will come when you need them. Nik Wallenda, who walked the cable between Chicago sky-scrapers, succeeded because he wasn’t preoccupied with falling. Like walking a tightrope, language confidence rests on going forward and looking ahead rather than looking down, afraid of falling over your mistakes.

I’‘felt’ the language in Guadalajara several years ago as a consultant to a food bank. A food bank official took me to a distribution center and  introduced me to local leaders with lavish praise. When she finished, she turned and looked directly at me. Only then did I realize she expected a response. It had to be more than “Gracias.” And I wasn’t prepared! Or so I thought. Swallowing momentary panic, I thanked her for the kind words and concentrated on what  I wanted them to know. Words poured out unconsciously without hemming or hawing. It all came out spontaneously. I didn’t quite believe it at first.

Every form of communication builds fluency

Try this: Enter into a Spanish conversation that involves topics more complex than you are accustomed to. Asking someone about their profession is a safe approach. People will be flattered and let yourself enter the vocabulary thicket without  a map, guided by trusting intuition to give you the words. Chances are good your conversation partner will help you with new words and phrases as she answers your questions. You may also develop a way to “work around” the unknown by describing the idea, object or action for which you lack the exact word. Even a work-around provides a good conversational exercise

Look for these  signs of progress toward fluency:

Dreaming. Our minds work even while our body rests. Early in the first immersion, I woke, stunned to realize I was dreaming in Spanish! It happens to a lot of students. If it happens to you, trust it. It doesn’t mean you’re fluent but it’s a sign your mind is absorbing the language subconsciously and that’s where you want it.

Social events are the greatest classrooms

Oblivious to language. At some point you will speak Spanish without conscious intention. Another big step. It happened to me when I agreed to an interview with a Mexican youth taking English classes.  Lacking confidence, she asked questions in halting English. I answered three questions in detail until her companion stopped me. “Ingles, habla en inglesHablas en espanol.” Speak English, she said, you are speaking Spanish. I was? Flabbergasted, I realized Spanish was now a “default” language. Even a meal in a Mexican restaurant in the U.S. triggers an unconscious response in Spanish.

 Catching mistakes. Another sign is when you catch a mistake just before or after you make it  We all do it so, relax. Your brain moves faster than the tongue, your mind edits as you speak and sometimes you change our mind while the tongue still  conjugating  a verb you’ve just rejected. You do it in English, too. Don’t criticize your small mistakes. Perfectionism is a disease. Of course, you speak fluent English, don’t you? Then listen to how you speak English and notice your mistakes and imperfections. Conversations aren’t oral exams with a grade. Being understood is the passing grade.  Not trying is failure.

Energy at day’s end. Acquiring a language takes lots of energy at first. Then, as Spanish sinks into the subconscious, check your mental energy at day’s end. The more you feel or trust the language, the less energy you will use in conversation. Much of the ease comes from focusing on what you want to say without worrying about how you say it.

Language, like art, is an intimate human capacity of body and soul

Body language. Every culture has body language to go with the words. Check out your gestures and facial expressions as you gain proficiency. The changes may be subtle or obvious. You may find yourself talking with your hands in ways you never did before  or with more emphatic  gestures. In Mexico, I “talk” with my hands  far more than I do in Minnesota.

Above all, pay attention to your emotional state as you grow in fluency. Language doesn’t exist outside you, and it isn’t knowledge like mathematics or history. Acquiring a language is an intimate process, like art. The teacher can give you vocabulary and grammar as raw materials  but only you can make it a part of your being.

 

Recognition and a Sense of Place

The Virgin appeared at an Aztec sacred site.

There is no landscape like Mexico

I have been in Mexico for two weeks, and once more feel a deep sense of place; of fitting in, of belonging to a locale. How can I feel this way when I’m in another country, culture, and language? It comes from traveling IN a country rather than traveling THROUGH a country. What do I mean?

When I travel THROUGH a country, I cover many miles, shoot hundreds of photos, check items on the bucket-list yet these places make no lasting impact on me. These are external experiences where I’m a bird of passage, a spectator, a tourist, standing aside and watching others live their lives. I know about the place, but don’t feel I’m a part of it.

When I travel IN a country, I take time, travel fewer miles, take fewer photos, and live without a check-list ‘must do’ items. Traveling IN a country is an inner journey wherein I participate in the community life around me, engaged in the lives of others. It is the shared experience that gives me a sense of the place as my own.

Humility is the avenue to self acceptance.

Rosita’s house, six doors down.

On Sunday, I returned to Oaxaca, Mexico, as a volunteer English teacher and the sense of place returned immediately. It began with Rosita, whose home laundry is six doors down the cobbled street. Spotting me through her wrought iron gate, I saw the light of recognition bloom in her eyes. “Ah, ¡buenos días!” she said, her voice rising. And, before we did business, we exchanged snippets of our personal news that passed during the last nine months.

With our relationship reset, I walked to El Mercado Merced, one of the small local grocery markets. The tortilla vendor on her stool glanced up at my approach, and I saw that she recognized me. Although I bought her tortillas many times last year, we never introduced ourselves. After I bought memelas, we talked for a few minutes—everyone here has time for a few words. She speaks Spanish and Zapotea, the local language. She knew all about Teotitlán, where I teach, and told me the town’s name in Zapotea, a tongue-twister for me. We will talk again when I buy tortillas next week. From vendor to vendor, I was heartened by seeing the expression that says, ‘he looks familiar.’

Years of friendship.

Years of friendship.

A sense of places goes with a sense of belonging. I’m also completely at home in Puebla where I learned Spanish have a circle of friends. Without friends, as in Guadalajara, I feel no sense of connection. It’s simply a large city. I return to Puebla annually, but not for it’s marvelous colonial buildings, historic and anthropological sites. My love of the city is woven into the love of friends who live there, with whom we share a personal history. The sense of belonging, the ‘hometown feeling,’ arises from knowing I occupy a place (however small) in the lives of friends; that my life matters to them as theirs does to me. My sense of place grows out of loving and being loved by the people who live there.

Why slow down and invest in distant friendships? For the past 10 years I have returned to Puebla at least annually, and the circle of friendships has widened each time. Friends introduce me to friends and families. I go to dinners, birthdays, Sunday excursions, and parties. My circle has great grandparents, adults, youths, and infants. Last week, nine of us ate dinner, talked about our children, grandchildren, health, work, and the state of politics in Mexico and the United States. Jokes went around, a bottle of tequila died in the cause, and we exchanged many expressions of love and cariño. Despite miles and months apart, we picked up where we left off as if we met yesterday. What is the value of this? It widens my sense of myself as a human. It is a way of expanding the possibilities of the brief life we’ve been given.

Friends expand the circle with their friends.

Friends expand the circle with their friends.

I am fortunate to have spent enough time in several places to put down emotional roots. My friend Lorena moved from Puebla to Cuetzalán, an indigenous Nahua town in Puebla’s Sierra Norte. She was my Spanish coach in 2009, and is now an intercultural teacher. Our friendship began in a museum, looking at artifacts of pre-hispanic cultures and grew through the interplay of personalities. A form of miracle. Eager to share the indigenous culture with me, she introduced me to her friend, a poet who writes in Totonaco. He and I now communicate. The circle of connections ripples outward, adding another cultural thread, another occupation, another perspective on the country.

As you can see, a sense of place comes when I let daily life take me where it will. Here, in Mexico, people I don’t know acknowledge everyone with a nod, a ‘buenos días,’ a way of saying ‘I see you, I affirm or accept your presence as a fellow being.’ Their simple human courtesy acknowledges their humanity in me and vice versa. Recognition by others gets to the root of a sense of place. Remembrance, however shaky, confirms my place at the table, however distant from its head. When I occupy at least a small part in someone’s life, I know I also exist in that place even when I’m not physically present. My life expands exponentially by any small recognitions .

In the end, a sense of place is also a sense of oneself. This is, perhaps, the greatest benefit of learning another language and culture. Our formal or factual knowledge of a place is less important than our emotional knowledge of who we are within that place. Sometimes, it may be best to forget what the guidebook says about a place and rely on what your heart tells you.

Unfinished Fluency

Unfinished Fluency

 “Are you fluent in Spanish?” my friends ask.

“Almost,” I reply. 

When I first enrolled in Spanish immersion, I thought of ‘fluency’ as the capacity to speak and understand without errors. Early in the course of my studies, I saw a banner marked ‘fluency’ at a finish line just ahead of me. The more I studied and learned, the more the finish line moved farther on, always a little ahead of me. Of course, I didn’t want to leave fluency unfinished. I wanted to cross a line that marked the boundary between fluent and not fluent. One day, I woke up realizing the ‘finish line’ didn’t exist; it was a figment of my cultural imagination.

Our American way of life seems preoccupied with the idea of completion, conclusion or the finished product. We don’t like things left unfinished—college degrees 10 credits short of graduation, questions left unanswered, arguments lacking conclusions, mysteries left uninvestigated. No. We are culturally inclined to want things neatly tied up, without loose ends. In death as well as life, we want resolution—closure. That’s the virtue we see in a ‘dead line.’ When we see something unfinished, a house, a project, an education, we tend to view it moralistically. Subtly, we think it a wasteful, slothful, shiftless, no-account. Culturally, we have little tolerance for anything unfinished.   

I suspect we can chalk up some of our abhorrence of unfinished things to the cultural effects of the Industrial Revolution and mass production. American life is tightly bound up in a layers of integrated processes. Every step along the way is measured to the last nano-second. Each one must be finished on time, nothing must be left unfinished, incomplete or behind schedule. If it is, the whole system stops. It’s unfinished. Horrible!

Learning a language, even our tongue, is a process. No one is born fluent in his native language. Nor is it possible to wake up some day speaking another idiom. From infancy on, we learn through a series of steps and processes that become a part of ourselves. Unlike the manufacture of standardized widgets, language learning takes its own time and is never truly finished. Unfortunately, too much language instruction follows an industrial model. The lessons are often a series of uniform steps meshed into larger units and designed to be completed within a specified period of time, as if the students were of identical capacity.

Am I fluent? No. I’m not finished yet. ‘Almost fluent’ is about as much as I can accomplish in any language, even in my native English. Something is always incomplete because English and Spanish evolve constantly. Each year brings new phrases, shades of meaning, and slang. These variants come and go rapidly. As I learn and unlearn  them, they change how I think and speak and act.

With the passing of time and circumstances, I add to my vocabulary and I find new and interesting ways to say and write my thoughts. It’s all part of on-going literacy. The American English I hear in old radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s isn’t the American English of today. Today’s voices are more diverse, the vocabulary, accents,  intonation, and word order have changed. Language evolves with our lives. Learning a language is like buying unfinished desk. It possesses the virtue of creating opportunities to continue its completion to suit me with my taste in varnish or paint.

Am I fluent ? Not yet. Like you, the reader, I’m still unfinished.  I’m a work in progress, still learning Spanish ever more deeply, and evolving as I learn. Each lesson, each experience, adds to the sum of what is already there. It deepens and broadens my sense and use of the language. Fluency is a journey and not a destination. It is never finished.  

 

Zapatos rojos—Red shoes and the pain of knowing

Speaking and reading another language opened doors into the lives of other people. Spanish helped me make friends I wouldn’t have otherwise. And, through friendships, I gained greater cultural awareness of Mexico. Greater awareness usually brings clarity but clarity reveals things sometimes touch my conscience in unexpected and uncomfortable ways. With awareness I also  feel some pain.

This happened gain last Saturday in Oaxaca, Mexico. This sunny, colonial city depends on tourists whose commerce with indigenous artisans and traditions accounts for nearly a third of the local economy. As la Semana Santa (Holy Week) approaches, more tourists arrive from Mexico, the United States, and Europe seeking a festive vacation.

IMG_5802Walking along the Alcala, Oaxaca’s street of high-end shops and tony restaurants, I’m surprised to see dozens of shoes, each the color of blood, set out in pairs on the gray cobbles. What is this, I wondered as I joined the cluster of Mexicans around the informational banner.

Zapatos Rojos (Red Shoes) is public art dedicated to women who have suffered violence. It began in 2009 as a symbolic march seeking justice for 33 women who were killed or ‘disappeared’ in Ciudad de Juárez. Now it is a traveling presentation, a call to conscience in solidarity with all women who risk violence at the hands of men who are protected by custom and official indifference.

IMG_5799Tourists passed the exhibition, most of them glanced at the crimson shoes, but few stopped to read the banner before they entered the shops and restaurants. Nevertheless, the silent, empty red shoes screamed to those of us who read the banner.

The price for learning another language, another culture, includes knowledge of good and evil. Like it or not, reading about the horrific murders of women is now an integral part of my Mexican  reality. I can no longer say: ‘I didn’t know.’ Now I know, and now my conscience isn’t as clear as it was before I saw the shoes. How bad is violence against women in Mexico, I wondered?

Minutes later, I had an answer to my question when I came upon a group of women speaking in the shade of Oaxaca’s cathedral. Behind them, large banners bore the photos and stories of their daughters—promising young women— who disappeared or were killed. The speakers were part of 300 Madres A.C. Unión de mujeres victimas de la violencia en Oaxaca. Our small crowd of listeners included young Mexican couples with babies, middle-aged women, youths, two policemen, and me—the only non-Mexican.

The women tell forceful stories. The women’s emotions drove their stories of pain and loss. Now and then, each paused to wipe her eyes or regain her voice. Their words flashed like sharp knives, paring away the hypocrisy of police and public officials who told them not to worry, their daughters were probably off with their boyfriends. Or worse, officials told them the girl was probably a prostitute or drug addict—as if that justified their deaths. One by one, the mothers demanded an end to ‘la cultura machista’ that protects the men—including police—who treat women as less than human.

How bad is it, I wondered?  It’s bad—it’s staggering. In the State of Oaxaca (population 3.5 million), 559 women were murdered between 2010 and 2015. Another 25 were murdered in January-February 2016. According to the Mexican Institute for Women (2009), 67 percent of Mexican women over the age of 15 years experienced some type of violence. In 40 percent of the cases, the violence occurred in the woman’s home, and usually involved a current partner or ex-partner.

What accounts for these horrors? Beneath the colorful cultural images projected by Mexican tourist bureaus lies a dark, authoritarian legacy of traditionally narrow gender roles, an acceptance of violence, and an absence of political will or resources to investigate and bring assailants to justice. These women, like many others, can’t rely on the government to protect them so they are organizing in their communities to stop gender-based violence.

The Nobel Women’s Initiative and Just Associates (JASS) documented (2012) that government officials and security forces frequently used sexualized violence to intimidate and subdue women. In 2006, when President Enrique Peña Nieto was Governor of the State of Mexico, he sent security forces to crush a protest against a new airport. Two protesters died and 26 women were sexually assaulted by the security forces. To date, no police officer has been  found guilty of the assaults. Peña Nieto later justified the violence as necessary to restore public order.

IMG_5880Nor can women rely on the authorities to protect them from drug cartels that coerce women into transporting drugs and filling logistical roles. According to a former director of the National Women’s Institute (Mexico City), cartels force women into prostitution because the sex trade is the third most profitable market after drugs and small arms.

Can this be true? Sadly, it is. It is a dark aspect of the Mexico I love.

These questions led me to look for comparable incidents in the U.S. and Minnesota. Femicide or feminicide has its evil counterpart in the U.S. One U.S. woman is assaulted every nine seconds; at least three U.S. women are murdered daily by their husbands or boyfriends. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. Ten million children witness domestic violence annually. Nearly one in five teenage girls said a boyfriend threatened her if they broke up. Women between the ages of 18-24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner and this accounts for 15 percent of violent crimes. Nearly three-fourths of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner and 94 percent of the victims are female (data from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).

In Minnesota (population 5.2 million), at least 115 women were killed in domestic violence between 2010 and 2015—34 of them in 2015. In the majority of cases, the women were murdered when they tried to leave an abusive relationship (data from Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women). This is significant.

Within my adult memory, there was a time when the police rarely intervened in ‘domestic violence’ except when the neighbors complained of the noise. Police seldom arrested anyone—particularly men. Women feared retribution and were afraid to press charges. Twenty years ago, the public regarded domestic fights as private affairs. When women did complain of abuse, the courts, the police, and even the clergy were quick to ask the woman what she had done to provoke the attack! They even advised her to be more understanding and work it out with her spouse. I’m struck by the similarities in the cultural mentalities of Mexico and the U.S.

I stood in the cathedral’s shade for nearly and hour and listened to the women tell their stories. As a husband and father of two daughters, I felt compelled to stay because, if I walked away and ignored the evil, I would thereby condone it and participate in it. As a foreigner, the only help I can give these women is to be present in the moment, listen to their stories, and let the stories touch my conscience. Listening is a form of participation, listening seems so insignificant, but in fact it’s an act of political and moral solidarity.

I returned to the shoes on the cobbles after the women finished speaking. The woman curating the Zapatos Rojos exhibit approached me with a slip of paper and a pen.

Quiere escribir un mensaje?” Do I want to write a message?” she asked.

Yes. Until now, la cultura machista and its violence seemed like abstract information unconnected to my reality. I hadn’t encountered anyone who had suffered violence. Now that I’m a seasonal resident in Oaxaca, I know the violence is part of the society I meet in the streets, it’s a reality for the women who sell me tomatoes in the Mercado Merced, it’s an integral but evil part of the Mexico I love. The dozens of empty shoes eloquently call me to think of the dead or ‘disappeared’ women who live only in the hearts of their mourners.

Then I thought of my friend Rosario in Puebla. A year ago she posted information on Facebook about Guadalupe, her friend who vanished after work one afternoon. Guadalupe or her remains haven’t been found. Nothing more is known—only silence.

Quiere escribir un mensaje?” the curator asked again.

.”

I took the paper and pen she offered, certain Rosario would leave a note were she here. But she isn’t and I will do it for her. No one can bring Lupe back from the dead but I could take Rosario’s place and stand with the brave women of Mexico who confront violence and official indifference. I wrote a note—a kind of prayer—to Guadalupe and stuck it in a shoe.

Empty red shoes cry out from the pavement. It is often said that travel and a second language broaden one’s perspective. And this is true. Once we gain another language, and our cultural horizons widen, we are vulnerable to the moral questions once invisible to us. The violence against women, like the sexual abuse of children, becomes culturally pervasive when society turns a blind eye and says it’s a private matter. I can no longer say I didn’t know, and silence in the face of evil isn’t a moral option.

Violence against women isn’t news to Mexicans; the news is that women will take physical risks to end la cultura machista. Zapatos Rojos is a fight for human rights, social equality, individual dignity and civic justice. The empty red shoes on the cobbled street remind me that moral obligations transcend national and cultural boundaries.

Learning Spanish as a tongue-tied imposter

Nearly every language learner I’ve met – whether an English-speaker learning Spanish, or a Spanish-speaker learning English – feels the same anxiety. Have you had that experience – the reluctance if not fear of using our second language in front of people who are bilingual? At its best , our hesitation may be a decent form of modesty to prevent a presumption of appearing to be more than we are. Or so we tell ourselves. Or, it may be our fear is more primal than that.

The ‘imposter syndrome’, as it’s called, hits me most noticeably when I encounter Spanish speakers whose English is at least as good as my Spanish. My first instinct is to stick with English. Yet, I’m not afraid to speak Spanish with Mexicans who don’t speak English. It’s utterly irrational but somewhere, in the back of my mind, a little voice tells me bilingual Spanish speakers will ask themselves: ‘Who does this naco (idiot) think he is?’

When I was a schoolboy, I sometimes had nightmares of standing naked in front of my classmates while they pointed, giggled and taunted as I imploded before them. Over the years, as I matured and gained self-confidence, the dreams went away – or so I thought.

Why not? I passed into adulthood and then middle age as a highly competent if not accomplished adult. I overcame a lackluster high school education to earn a PhD, write a book and receive a book award, then hold a professional slot in a multinational corporation followed by a stint in state government. In short, when I put my mind and will into it, I did everything I thought possible to do and even things I thought no possible to do. Experience showed me that my professional effectiveness rested on my integrity because people knew me to be who I claimed to be.

When I took up Spanish in my 60s, and stepped outside my customary social and professional world, the fear of standing naked on a stage returned, and I again feared exposure as a fraud. I know the ‘imposter syndrome’ is a common occurrence to various degrees but it’s not one we talk about. We cover it up behind a bluff front, or we dismiss these dire visions as irrational fantasies outside reality. As a middle-aged language student, the fear of exposure often dogged me by day as well as by night.

Learning Spanish in Mexico wasn’t simply a matter of memorizing grammar and vocabulary, as I thought. No. Language immersion entailed learning and living within a cultural mentality that was different from my own. The anxiety didn’t arise when I began the language because I knew so little. Anxiety increased as I learned to move into the culture and became acute toward the end of immersion, as I became bilingual. Mexico isn’t Minnesota and our inner ways of life differ. Unfiltered expressions of opinion and emotion are marks of authenticity in Mexico but we Minnesotans mask these things with opaque friendliness. As I internalized this aspect of the Mexican cultural mentality, I started to think, speak and act in Mexico in ways at odds with how I thought, spoke and acted in Minnesota. Before long, I felt as if I had two personalities and wondered which was the authentic one.

Near the end of my language study, I was riding high, full of myself, floating on the affirmations of teachers and friends who said how much I had changed during immersions. To them, I had become ‘something of a Mexican’ in thought and habit as well as speech. When I took a bus to visit a friend in a distant town, I shared the four-hour journey with a campesino. When he discovered I grew up on a farm, we talked about agriculture in great detail, questioning each each other about the practices in Mexico and Minnesota. If I can do that, I thought afterward, then I must be truly ‘something of a Mexican’.

After a day of walking around in the tropical heat, and feeling ill, I passed a wretched night with my inner critic, trapped between slumber and consciousness. Like a prosecuting attorney, this dark voice reviewed every error I ever made during Spanish immersion, it doubted my affinity for Mexican culture, and questioned the authenticity of my identity as ‘something of a Mexican’. Who was I to think I could be bilingual and culturally competent? I was a fraud, a pretender, un pendejo (a jerk).

I rose early in the morning, physically and mentally exhausted, convinced I didn’t speak much Spanish, that the affirmations of my fluency were lies, and my affinity for Mexico was illusory. At that moment, I wanted to return to Minnesota immediately. Feeling hungry, I went to the posada’s deserted dining room for breakfast. The waiter greeted me cheerfully and asked for my order. I answered automatically in fluent Spanish, adding the details of how I wanted my eggs cooked, and could he bring me coffee right now. Hearing me speak in rapid-fire Spanish, he asked more questions, we chatted for a moment and then he took my order to the kitchen. As he walked away, I wondered: What happened last night?

That is the crux of the ‘imposter syndrome’. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. At its core, the ‘imposter syndrome’ identifies our insecurities and poses questions that test if not challenge what we believe about ourselves. Sometimes it’s a gentle nudge toward self-examination and self-definition. At other times, as in my case, it acts like the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem witch trials demanding proof that its negative accusations aren’t false. Looking back on it, I realize my subconscious was warning me not to confuse my high aspirations and expectations with my current reality. Yes, I’m bilingual, and yes, I’m culturally competent, but that night the syndrome taught me the importance of humble self-acceptance as the heart of authenticity.

Two tongues, Two Minds – Writing Bilingually

Have you ever tried writing from scratch in your second language? A letter, a post-card, an essay? What was your result? Too hard to think of the words? Frustration with the grammar? You wrote it in English and then tried to translate it to Spanish? Writing in a second language is challenging but so rewarding if you want to learn.

I treat all writing – in English or Spanish – as thinking on paper. It’s thought in a visual form. When I lay down the words where I can see them, it’s easier to watch what they do in the company with other words. Writing in Spanish, however imperfectly, also sharpens me for writing in English.

Good writers are also good readers and reading is a good place to start. Try reading a familiar English passage in another language. Chances are it will illuminate something you didn’t notice in English. For example, St. John’s Gospel starts with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …” I always took this as a poetic but abstract statement about the Divinity. I understood the passage differently when I heard it in Spanish. “En el principio existía el Verbo y el Verbo estaba con Dios y el Verbo era Dios…” Verbo means verb, it denotes a word to express action. The English ‘word’ denotes a part of speech and can be a noun, adjective, preposition as well as a verb. In other words, ‘Word’ is rather generic, even passive.  God as verbo is a different image than God as ‘word; a God of actions rather than categories.

Try this:

Read in Spanish (or your second language) a book you already know well in English. Preferably, choose one with familiar passages as in the Bible, Winnie the Pooh, Goodnight Moon, or others. As you read, look for shades of meaning in Spanish language you missed in English. What new insights or meanings do you take from this?

I began writing in Spanish during immersion. The teacher asked only for random sentences to practice verb tenses, prepositional phrases, etc. As an inveterate writer, however, I turned the requisite sentences into a short, coherent story I might tell socially. I was tempted to write it in English and then translate it but I’m glad I didn’t. The point of immersion is learning to think the language. Writing Spanish from scratch wasn’t easy at first, but became easier with each essay and oh so satisfying!

Writing forced me to think the language, and my tutor identified the habitual mistakes. That became an agenda for practice and improvement. In short, writing Spanish showed me where to focus my efforts. Writing helped me acquire the rhythm of Spanish. I wrote about things that interested me, thereby building a useable, personal vocabulary connected to my life and interests. Ultimately, I developed a writing and speaking style natural to me.

I habitually wrote English in an emotionally restrained style sometimes bordered on terseness. When I wrote in Spanish, however, I was surprised to discover my natural style was more emotional and affective than in English. Part of this I ascribe to the transforming effects of languages and cultures. Second languages and cultures tend to draw on aspects of personality that may be subordinate or invisible in your native culture.

When I started writing Spanish, I focused on words and phrases I wanted to learn to use well. I began by writing them across the top of a page. Then I studied them for their possibilities until I had a story line. It was a process like arranging and rearranging the magnetic words and phrases on the refrigerator door until a sentence or paragraph emerged. In time, reading and writing moved me closer to thinking and speaking with the economy of a native speaker. You will find, as I did,  writing can embed in your memory useful words and phrases that will easily roll off your tongue when you need them.

After the immersions, I continued to write short stories for my own amusement and to practice Spanish. I created stories with dialogues between the characters because this is a good way (in my opinion) to learn the kinds of phrases most likely to come up in conversation. It is especially useful in learning the slang or modismos.

In the fragment below, I created an author with a case of writer’s block the night before a crucial deadline. He hears a voice in his garret and is confronted by a tiny man standing on his typewriter. It is the writer’s inner voice but he doesn’t yet recognize it as his own:

“¿Quién? ¿Quién eres,” le pregunté, frotando los ojos con mis puños con incredulidad.

“¿Tú no sabes?”

No. No idea. No conozco a cualquier hombrecitos. ¿Eres tú una invención? ¿Alguien que me imaginaba?“

Sabes ya mi nombre. Es el mismo de tuyo.”

“¡Ay-yi-yi! ¿De dónde vienes?”

“Aquí. Siempre aquí. Vivo dentro de ti.”

¡Aquí! ¡Siempre! ¡Dentro de yo mismo! Me sentí más y más confundido. Cuando traté poner un dedo en el hombrecito, mi dedo pasó por su cuerpo como sí él estaba el aire. ¡Carrumba! ¿Por qué estoy platicar con un hombrecito imaginario? Él es una alucinación. ¡Ay, estoy fatigado!

Now try writing a story on your own. Keep it simple, on the level of a story you would tell a child. Keep it short and manageable. Play with it. If you write on your computer with Microsoft Word, you can go to the “Review” tab on the menu bar and set the proofing language. When you right click on a word, there is a link to synonyms. It’s a great way to sharpen your writing and expand your vocabulary.

Try this:

Choose a dozen words – verbs, prepositions, phrases – and write them across the top of your page. Next, look at the words and phrases and note the words, thoughts, actions, or events they suggest. Use them as the basis for a story. Use them naturally, in your particular way of speaking. Watch what happens.

Try this:

Create several characters and put them into a conversation in your second language. Try to inhabit each character, and give each one a distinct way of speaking. You may find yourself writing short, punchy phrases – the kind we say all the time. The dialogue will suggest the vocabulary.

If you have a native-speaker friend, or one who is highly fluent in your second language, engage them as a critical reader to give you constructive criticism. Two things will happen: 1) Your use of the language will improve, and 2) you may detect a subtle but distinct aspect of your mind you hadn’t noticed before.

Buena suerte!

 

 

Beach Books

 

The list of ‘beach books’ is already out and the weather isn’t the only thing that’s steamy. What is your reading pleasure this summer? In this case, what are you reading for pleasure – in Spanish?

Am I kidding? No. For most of us short of native speaker fluency, the idea of pleasure reading in Spanish sounds like an oxymoron – hard work! True. So – why am I writing about this?

I’m writing about it because when reading is a pleasure you learn deeper and faster. Reading doesn’t become a pleasure until you learn to read well.  I learned to read in grade school with the ‘Dick, Jane, and Sally’ stories. At some point – I must have been eight or nine – I began reading other things because I enjoyed the stories. I read for pleasure.

Think about how much of your adult reading serves only a functional or transactional purpose. You read to accomplish something else. You read road signs, repair manuals, newspapers, and office memos. Any pleasure you derive from this kind of reading is purely secondary. It is not the reading itself that pleases you but reading provide traffic directions, how to operate a dishwasher, your major league team’s standing in the Central Division, or word you just received a promotion.

Reading for pleasure is simply that. It is reading for the sake of reading because doing so gives you immense pleasure, it feeds your spirit. In pleasure reading, you lose yourself in a world of imagination and find yourself in an imaginary world. You learn about and through the experiences of others in ways that illuminate and animate your own. Why limit yourself to only one language?

If you are new to Spanish language literature, reading for pleasure will seem daunting – far more work than pleasure. Summers are short enough, why load up with ‘homework?’ Just as you learned to read for pleasure as a child, be your younger self again and rediscover yourself in a Never-never-land of Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, or Spain through the words and phrases of the original language. Why the original? Wouldn’t it be better to simply by an English translation, or open a popular English book translated into Spanish. No. Please don’t.

Some of the ‘juice’ in a story may be lost in translation. Turning a Spanish story into English is an art, not a science. Writers work within their culture and use emotional urgency to animate their work and connect with readers. They choose words and phrases to resonate with their readers through shared connections and experiences. Words trigger memories of times and places that move you, transform you. The cultural context of time and place make the figures of speech powerful. A translation is only as good as the translator’s sense of language and sensibility. Translating a work to replicate faithfully an author’s sensibility can be difficult. Something gets lost in translation.

What to do? Dual language anthologies are a good place to start your summer reading . Short stories offer excellent literature brief enough to read in a day. Sometimes, finishing a story is its own satisfaction. An anthology offers you a variety of authors, stories, and styles; and these often span the culture across time. Ready for summer reading in Spanish?

I like the dual language short story anthologies published by Dover and Penguin books. The stories will introduce you to Spanish and Latin American literature with short author biographies – in English – and story introductions to give you the historical, social, and political context in which the author wrote. Both series print the stories in Spanish on one page and the English translation on the facing page. You can go at reading them by one of several ways.

You can start reading the story in Spanish and glance at the English translation when you don’t understand a word or phrase. Another way is to read the story through in Spanish, read it in English for clarification, and then re-read it in Spanish.

Personally, I prefer to read the story in English to understand the author’s narrative arc – the big picture. Then I cover the translation with a piece of paper and read it in Spanish, using the story’s context to lead me to an understanding of new vocabulary. If I’m stumped, I underline words or phrases and look them up later. I like this approach because the overview gives me a sense of direction but covering the translation keeps my mind immersed in Spanish, and working through and absorbing unfamiliar vocabulary.

If you are ready to try, consider any of the following resources :

John King, ed., Short Stories in Spanish (Penguin), a collection of short stories by modern writers drawn from the ‘boom’ period of Latin American literature (1950s and 60s), including pieces by Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes. The editor arranged the stories in order of difficulty, beginning with the easiest.

Stanley Applebaum, ed., Mexican Short Stories/Cuentos mexicanos (Dover), a collection of Mexican stories written between 1840 and 1920 and reflect literary romanticism and modernism. The volume includes author biographies, historical, and social notes.

Angel Flores, ed., Spanish Short Stories/Cuentos españoles (Dover), offers a wide range of Spanish language literature from Spain and Latin America. Stories range from the 1300s to the 1950s. Stories from Spain focus on the struggles of daily life, values, and behavior. Latin American writers use prose as a weapon to attack corruption and despotic rulers.

Anna E. Hiller, ed., Great Spanish and Latin American Short Stories of the 20th Century (Dover), includes a wide range of writers from Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, and Ecuador. Both Spain and Latin America produced prolific writers perhaps because the cultures experienced great political upheaval and social changes with issues of class, race, and power.

If you interest goes to biography or memoir, try Francisco Jiménez, Cajas de Cartón (Cardboard Boxes), a memoir of his boyhood as a migrant Mexican child in California, and its sequel, Senderos Fronterizos (Border Trails) about his education. Written simply and directly, they provide a richly detailed picture of the family’s struggles in the late 1940s and 50s. You will emerge from the books with a deeper sense of the past and current realities of undocumented immigrants and their drive to find a better life.

If your interest goes to current events, try Jorge Ramos. This well-known journalist, writer, and Univision commentator writes clearly and simply. La otra cara de America (America’s Other Face) includes stories of Latin American immigrants in the United States, and La ola Latina (The Latin Wave) explores the impact of Latinos on American politics.

My ‘beach books’ for this summer include La muerte es un sueño (Death is a Dream), 15 short stories by writers from Puebla, and the novella, El coronel no tiene quien le escribe (No One Writes to the Colonel) by Gabriel García Márquez.

So, wherever you spend your summer vacation, take some time by the pool, the beach, or the lake, sit back and lose yourself in a short story that suspends reality long enough to transport you to another time and place. ¡Vale la pena!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tlacochahuaya – a volunteer citizen says ‘adios’

It’s not enough to become bilingual. As I achieved fluency, I looked for ways to keep my Spanish in use. Eventually left a suburban congregation to join a Hispanic one in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Through my professional contacts I made a bridge to the majority culture. I made friends, and I advocated for them on immigration issues.

Ten weeks of immersion stoked a desire to return to Mexico, not as a gringo tourist but as a contributing member of a community. I volunteered a couple times but the assignments didn’t involve close, personal relationships. I wanted to be involved with people and engaged in their community. Then I volunteered with Fundación en Vía as an English teacher in Oaxaca. The English classes complement the micro-credit and business training the Fundación gives indigenous women. I already knew effective teaching required rapport if not intimacy.

Oaxaca is a small, vibrant city in southern Mexico that retains its indigenous roots and cultures. I elect to live with an ordinary family near the Fundación and teach in the outlying Zapotec town of San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya (thirty minutes by bus from the center of Oaxaca). The three other teachers – Nora, Nicola, and Augie are just out of college or grad school – are also volunteers. They teach the children.

It’s midafternoon when the four of us get off the local bus at the município or city hall and set up our ‘classrooms’ beneath the open air arcade or portales fronting the city hall. Each ‘classroom’ consists of a table, a white board with a few markers, and some folding chairs. We write the day’s lesson plan on the white board along with key words or lessons for the evening. Then we bask in the warmth of late afternoon sunlight while we wait for our students to arrive – three classes for children, one for adults.

Tlacochahuaya (Tcla-co-cha-why-a) is an agricultural community nestled in a broad valley bounded by dark, volcanic ridges rising high above fields of maíz, frijol, calabasas (corn, beans, squash), and maguey, an agave that is se source of mescal, the local liquor. This município sits high on a slope facing the fawn-colored parroquia or church across the square or zocalo. From the portales we look across the valley to the dark mountains beyond.

The Fundación’s curriculum is well-designed for children but I don’t think it will work for adults. As an adult language-learner, I know adult students can learn faster and deeper than children, but I also know they have an adult inhibitions and self-censorship that rarely bothers children. With this in mind, I alter the curriculum activities. As a recent adult language student, I know how they feel; at times I still feel inhibited. As their teacher, I’m also something of a student in Spanish. Our immediate goal isn’t the precise mastery of grammar rules but becoming confident in communication.

My small class consists of Manuel, Elizabet, her daughter Monica. Elizabet is in her late forties and I don’t know if she has a job. Monica is a nurse and new mother in her twenties. And Manuel says he’s forty-five and had English classes many years before. He is entering at mid-term and already more advanced. My predecessor taught his last class the week before I arrived and I have no idea how much or how well he taught them. Our first class is something of a blind date.

What a surprise and pleasure to discover they already know more English than the curriculum provides for and eager to push on. Clearly, they aren’t ‘blank slates’ on whom I will lay the curriculum. They are insipient English speakers and I must begin where they are and go forward from there.

Class preparation hinges on several questions: What do adults find hardest to learn at first? What were my barriers to learning?   How did teachers help me overcome them? What spurred me to learn? I spend more prep time working on the answers to these questions than on grammar. Our classers quickly become interactive – like‘improv’ theater – in which we react to and incorporate what we bring to class in the way of questions and observations.

Their questions of ‘how do you say …?’ or ‘what’s the Spanish equivalent of …?’ are as integral to learning as a lesson about placing adjectives BEFORE the nouns they modify. English goes bottom up, empirically compiling details (modifiers) with the noun as a kind of summary of all: ‘The tall, green fir TREE.’ Spanish is more top-down, categorically starting with the noun and then adding details (modifiers) as subordinate aspects: ‘El ÁRBOL, alto y verde’ (The tree, tall and green). Is there any inherent logic about where the adjective is placed? Their simple, direct questions cause me to think about English in a way I haven’t thought of it before.

Making out vocabulary cards, I choose words relevant to their lives and contain letter combinations and sounds largely unknown in Spanish: ‘th’, ‘ee’, ‘oo’, ‘lk’,’rn’ and many others. Not only must they recognize the sound when they read them silently, but it is important to train their tongues to make the sounds. Elizabet, Monica, and Manuel practice training their tongues on words like ‘with’, ‘tooth’, ‘geese’, ‘born’, walk, and many others.

I know this is harder than it seems. Even if the brain recognizes the word, the tongue either fails to make the sound in speech or rebels against making it. At one time, I had to learn new letters and sounds, such as trilling the double ‘r’ as in perro (dog) or making a ‘yj’ sound for the double ‘ll’ in llamar (to call). Now they see me struggling to pronounce Tlacochahuaya.

My Spanish is very good they tell me and try, gently, to correct my rendition of the town’s name. The ‘tl’ combination is a common sound in indigenous place names: Tlaxiaco, Tlacolula, Tlaxcala, and Tlatelolco. Mexicans say them easily but most Anglos don’t. ‘Tl’ isn’t a consonant combination we recognize in English – we’re familiar with ‘lt’. The ‘tl’ sound starts with the tongue near the back of the pallet and then rolls forward. I practice Tlacochahuaya almost daily for weeks until, at last, I get reasonably close – close enough that no one misunderstands me but still short of a native’s rendition.

Besides the uncommon sounds of English, we work on the structure of sentences, the syntax, the inherent ‘logic’ of putting together nouns and verbs and modifiers in a way that makes sense, in a way that completes a comprehensible picture of an object, a person, or an action. The more I work on this, the more I understand how the relationships among the parts of speech differ from language to language.

The verb ‘to do’ in English is simpler than hacer, its Spanish counterpart. ‘Do’ is an all-purpose verb covering a variety of actions (doing). Hacer not only means ‘to do’ in a general sense, but also means ‘to make’ as in constructing or creating something. For my students, writing and understanding sentences with the verb ‘to do’ is like working with only half of a verb. They need to learn ‘make’ for the other half. Teaching the verb ‘to be’ is much easier because English has only one form while Spanish has two. Prepositions are also trickier because those similar to English aren’t exact. The preposition en means ‘in’ but also ‘at’ or ‘on’ depending on the context. The preposition ‘por’ means ‘for’ in the English sense but may also mean ‘through’, ‘by’, ‘by means of’, or ‘cause of’. Teaching and learning these is a strugge.

Monica, Elizabet, and Manuel are eager learners, and return each time filled with questions about a phrase, or how to say a Spanish phrase in English. As homework, I ask each to take from their library a child’s book in English and read it aloud to themselves. Reading aloud makes an eye-ear-tongue connection. In one act, they recognize the letters, hear them pronounced as a word, and train their tongue to make the sound. For my last class, I want them to read aloud a passage from their book and explain what it means (in English, of course). Their explanations will tell me how well they understand what they read. Manuel brings a child’s story, Elizabet and Monica share a children’s book about Mexico. The reading goes smoothly, I know they can now read, understand, and explain in English.

As the last hour winds down, I tell them this is my last class, and introduce them to their new teacher, a new volunteer with several years’ experience as a teacher. Although they have had short-term, volunteer teachers before, and although I told them I would be with them for five weeks, they seem shocked.

‘When are you coming back?’ Elizabet asks plaintively.

Si Dios quiere, un año’ (God willing, in a year). In my mind, I want to do this again.

And so class ends with the ‘abrazos y besos’ or hugs and kisses that are the customary Mexican gestures of friendship. It’s evening and we wait in the cobbled street to catch the collectivo to Oaxaca.

I loved spending the afternoons with people as beautiful as their valley. Standing beneath the squash-colored portales of the município, I often gazed across the shady park of fig and cedar trees to the dark, hazy mountains beyond the valley. I will miss looking through the small gap where the solitary, palm tree stands shaggy-headed. But I will take away memories of the broad valley lying green-gold in the enchanting amber light that comes just before the puesta del sol. I will miss Tlacochahuaya, whose name defies my attempts to pronounce it correctly. I will continue to practice it until I return to teach again. Adios Tlacochahuaya.

My work in Tlacochahuaya is done and I’m sad to see it end because it is going so well. For a few weeks, we struggled together to produce learning, and in the process, we opened ourselves to each other. That’s the satisfaction of volunteering, it is inherently real work. And work, whether volunteer or paid, is an honorable and integral part of the larger social fabric. As a volunteer, I contribute toward the fabric of Oaxacan society and feel I am something of an oaxaqueño. Volunteering isn’t simply an activity, with a true heart, it may be a form of citizenship.

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.