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.

 

The Exquisite Pain of a Double Life

 

What is more exquisite than preparing for a trip? A week, maybe two, or even a month? Do you have a ritual you follow as you prepare? I do. Mine begins by ignoring the departure date until at least a month before I leave. Then I start. It’s a kind of foreplay. Something that builds to peak excitement on the day I leave.

Tonight, I’m making beef and black bean tacos, listening to cumbia on my laptop and, later, watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a great story about greed, generosity, and compassion starring Humphrey Bogart.  I’m only 36 hours away from departure. The SuperShuttle will pick me up at 4:40 a.m. for a 6:30 flight to Mexico City. Two hours after that, I will be among friends in Puebla.

Already, the suitcase is packed—37 pounds of necessities to last me three months. That includes a laptop, changes of clothing, notebooks for my writing, gifts that Mexican friends have asked me to deliver to their families, plus personal odds and ends. The beauty of is—I’ve make the trip many times and I don’t need to take much. A woman five houses from my quarters does laundry. I cook my breakfast and supper and, as much as possible, live as ordinary Mexicans do.

A flight from frigid Minnesota to semi-tropical Oaxaca crosses more borders than I can count. Physically crossing the Río Bravo is the least significant of many crossings. And the much-trumpeted Great Wall will be easily crossed, also.

The most significant borders are internal ones of language, cultural beliefs and habits, perspectives on the world, expectations, and attitudes. You don’t often think of these things in preparation, but they’re there. And if you’re an experienced traveler, especially a bilingual one, it doesn’t take you more than a few hours—maybe a day and a night—to easily reintegrate into your new surroundings.

That’s how long it takes my alternate persona to assert itself in Mexico. The shifts are subtle now, I don’t notice the change the way I did at first, but they are essential to living easily within the envelope of Mexican culture. Language is the first adjustment. After nine months of speaking English like a Minnesotan, my vowels are ‘flat’ and have lost some sharpness of the long Spanish A, E, I, O, and U. It takes a day to complete the crossing from Minnesota English to Mexican Spanish. But that’s only the beginning.

As the language shifts,  the muscles of my tongue resume familiar twists. It’s like riding a bike, the muscles relearn to shape the proper sounds, moving faster to dance over the vowels (vocales), each one a syllable. At the same time, my ear retunes its acuity to recognize rhythms and sounds uncommon in Minnesota except in bodegas and Latino neighborhoods. According to scientists, a second language creates a new set of circuitry in the brain. Well, it’s time to flip the switch!

The crossing won’t be complete until my alternate persona emerges; the me that expresses myself in Spanish with words and phrases that I might never say in English in Minnesota. One of the miracles of another language is the way it taps into the subconscious parts of you in ways the native tongue doesn’t. With any fluency at all, you make the shift without knowing it.

My biological family didn’t overuse words of emotion. We were WASP’s and emotions were considered one’s private business, not to be put on public display. As children, were expected to speak in facts, not emotions. I grew up and remain a largely pragmatic, and matter-of-fact in Minnesota . In Mexico, however, a culture where all aspects of life are expressed in emotions and opinions, that neglected side of my soul emerges. The inner life, not the outer, is more important in Mexico. I say things using Spanish words and phrases of emotion I hesitate to use in Minnesota. In el norte, my comments on someone’s difficulty is usually “It’s too bad that …” because it fits within the emotionally restrained culture of Minnesota’s north European population. But not in Mexico. There, I easily say, “Está triste que … or It’s sad that …”

Between the United States to Mexico lies a gulf of history that shapes their respective cultural mentalities. As Americans, we are data-driven, depend on strong (even dominant) institutions to provide stability and security. We can count things happening exactly when and how they’re supposed to. UPS gives a tracking number and delivery date, our appliance repairman gives us the hour when he’ll arrive, our employer automatically deducts our taxes and deposits our paycheck in the bank. These and a thousand other certainties fee our fantasy of the world as a secure orderly place.

Not so in Mexico. Try to make a date for coffee next week and the conversation starts with, “Es posible… It’s possible …”  Of course it’s possible! you think. Anything’s possible. So why not just say, ‘Yes’? Because, in Mexico, institutions are trusted less than in the U.S., people don’t depend on them, and experience has instilled an understanding that the best laid plans will come a cropper more often than not. Crossing over involves setting aside an expectation all will run on time, as planned. That doesn’t happen south of the border, and we all learn to live in the conditional tense.

The happy history of the United States during the 20th century instilled the fantasy of ‘progress’ as a reality in which each generation of Americans is richer and happier than the one before it. Unfortunately, the expectation has induced an unsustainable sense of entitlement that began crashing in the 2008 recession—if not sooner. Maybe Mexicans are wiser on this point. They hope tomorrow will be better than today but they don’t count on it. They’re students of their own history and know the bitterness of disasters—political, financial, social, and familial.

You ask: Why do I cross over each year and live in a society rived by narco-violence, social unrest, economic insecurity, political corruption, and widespread poverty? Aren’t there better places than this?

It depends on what you mean by ‘better.’ Certainly, the Mexican coasts with their lavish resorts in Cozumel, Cancun, and Cabo are ‘better’ in this respect. But in those places I won’t find or receive what I look for and find among ordinary Mexicans. Living much as they do, I experience intimately my own humility and feel gratitude for my life and its possibilities in ways that don’t happen when all is secure and orderly. The mass of Mexicans are living a line from the Eagles’ hit, Hotel California: ‘You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.’ Crossing over lets me take their way of life as my own for a long as I can, and live it on their terms. Every time I do this, I reconnect with my deeper self, and rediscover aspects of my persona I have overlooked, neglected, or forgotten. Unlike my dearest Mexican friends, I can leave; there is an exquisite sadness in knowing they can’t.

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.