Use it, don’t lose it

Language, like any skill, will remain strong as long as we use it. But what do we do when we can’t use it every day? Ever felt reluctant to speak, thinking you’re rusty, you’ve forgotten too much, or can’t recall verb forms? I think we all have, but it’s never as bad as we think.

Right now, I’m packing to work voluntarily as an English teacher in Oaxaca, México. Many students learned Spanish as a second language in addition to their indigenous one. How clearly will we understand each other, at least at first? But my ear will “re-tune” itself, like getting used to accents in the Deep South or coastal Maine.   I’ve noticed Spanish comes more easily – as if by magic – when I don’t think about it and simply trust my brain, intuition, and emotions to take charge.

So, how do we keep our Spanish in shape and – most importantly – keep up our self-confidence when we can’t speak Spanish every day?  Let’s look for substitutes, like a local Hispanic radio station, or cruise I-Heart Radio for one on the Internet.  Want to practice speaking, but there’s no one to talk to?  Buy simple books in Spanish – children’s or young adult novels – and read them aloud to yourself.  One of my Mexican friends taught herself English by reading the Amelia Bedilia series of children’s books to her daughter.  Reading aloud exercises your tongue to make Spanish sounds while it also imprints the sounds in your ears.  Want more?  Talk to yourself – in Spanish – while commuting in your car.

Don’t believe what everybody says.

Conventional wisdom says mature, middle-aged adults are too old to learn a second language. Such wisdom goes on to say only children and youths possess the mental flexibility to become fluent. I used to believe it until I tried it, and then discovered that conventional wisdom is wrong.

Experience taught me that, as mature adults, you and I have everything we need to learn and become fluent in another language. You can do it – “Sí se puede.” I started Spanish at the age of 64 and I’m now fluent. I want to share what I’ve learned, hear about your experiences and together wrestle with your questions.

Learning is as much emotional as mental; it’s falling in love, and who doesn’t want to do that? Love is married to desire. And don’t you secretly desire, or dream of speaking another language? Do you wonder if you’re able to learn it? Or do you think it’s too late for that? If you heart wants to learn, listen to it and ignore what your head says about conventional wisdom. Follow your heart. As they say in Mexico, “Querer es poder,” or “To want is to be able to;” it’s a way of saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

If you want to learn a language, and believe you can, this column is for you. Let’s take the journey together .