Back to School

Days 251-264 7-20 Nov, 2015

Focus.  You can get this.  You can speak Spanish.  Lots of people learn a new language.  It’s not that hard.  Stop overthinking it.  Immerse yourself.  Talk to people.  Nothing but Spanish for 2 weeks.

The human brain has an amazing capacity for knowledge, new skills, new information, interpreting such skills and information and storing it, and being able to recall it later when necessary.  As children, we learn to communicate and think in the language (or languages) that we hear the most during cognitive development.  We intuitively pick up grammar rules as we listen to those around us.  Once we have aged past this phase of our lives, it becomes more difficult.  Why?  Because instead of approaching language-learning as a child does, as adults, we tend to use an adult problem-solving process with our native language as the core.  We translate everything before we can process it and respond.

When I arrived in Spain to walk the Camino, I didn’t plan on spending more time afterward to study.  After 6 months in Latin America, I could communicate my thoughts in acceptable Spanish if I had to and if the listener was willing to be patient (because I speak way too slow for their liking).  Unfortunately, I rarely had to so it was much easier (and faster) to revert to my mother tongue.  I didn’t consider this to be a success by any means, but I knew I had tried.  Back in the US, I had studied Spanish for Spain, which is quite different than Latin American Spanish and I often blamed that difference on my failure thus far.


My first night in Spain, on the Camino, I noticed an immediate difference.  It was much easier to identify words that I knew while eavesdropping on a rapid-fire conversation between native speakers.  My pronunciation was more easily understood (I say gra-thi-as instead of gracias).  My vocabulary was more appropriate (ahem, coger does indeed mean to catch or to take, not the vulgar version in Latin America!).  I began to look forward to the next opportunity when I could speak, although to be fair, most of those opportunities revolved around eating in restaurants or checking in to albergues so the conversations were generally the same.

I began to think….what if.  What if I went back to Spain to study after Portugal?  What if I lived with a family?  What if I committed to speaking nothing but Spanish?  It all seemed a bit aggressive, but I knew I might not have the time to do something like this again so the answer came easy.  I registered for courses at Academia Hispánica in Córdoba.  I had never been there, but I knew it was worth visiting, not too big, not too small, mild weather.  I would be taking 5 hours a day, 4 of those in group lessons and 1 hour of private lessons.


I paid a little extra so that I could live with a host family, which was really only a husband and wife, Ana and Marcial.  Their two children were grown and no longer living at home.  Their home was of the traditional Spanish style, with the large inner patio that Andalusia is so famous for.  Every year in May, Córdoba hosts la Festival de Los Patios in which average homeowners can enter their patios into a friendly competition with open houses throughout the old city.  The first year that Ana and Marcial entered, their patio won.  I had my own wing of the house, my own entrance off the inner courtyard, my own bedroom, my own bathroom.  Living in this residential neighborhood, it was the first time I had a routine, a schedule, and a home (even if only temporarily).   I was a functioning member of the community.


There were 4 students in my class, including me.  Ana from Germany was in Córdoba while her boyfriend was studying at the University.  Chris from Scotland, the guitar player, was thinking of moving to Spain permanently while he studied flamenco music.  And Arilson from Brazil seemed an unlikely student, but also had the easiest time learning due to his native language of Portuguese having similar attributes.  Some of my most successful Spanish conversations were with these 3 since we were all on the same level.  In fact, the first time I heard Chris speak English was almost a week after we started, which was good because I couldn’t understand a thing he said in English.  Did I mention he is Scottish?


Our teachers, Vanesa and Antonio, took turns teaching 2 hours each every day.  My private lessons could be with either one, depending on the day.  I was partial to Antonio because he was more patient and was more likely to change his teaching style based on my mood that day (5 hours straight is a long time and some people are prone to get hangry).  Vanesa used one lesson to discuss Picasso, of whom she has an affinity, nevermind that I don’t have anything to say about Picasso in English, let alone in Spanish.  Another lesson she brought in a game where we were prompted to discuss a variety of topics, such as movies, books, art, travel.  Some of the topics were easy to talk about (books, travel) and some were of no interest to me (art) and some I just didn’t know enough to have anything to say (Spanish history).  On another lesson, we went for a stroll in the Christmas market and she would point out random objects with their Spanish name.  I found this to be completely pointless because most of the objects, like a nativity scene or a poinsettia, don’t generally come up in normal conversation.

When I wasn’t in class, I patronized as many local joints as I could, writing and reading.  I made the rounds of the historic sites, la Mezquita, Alcazar, el Palacio Viana, el Puente de Los Romanos.  I adored Salon de Té, a middle eastern tea room with comfy sofas and pillows and creative food.  La Bicicleta was another of my favorite spots for dessert and wine and good wifi.  I had the best vegan cake at Orgánico; the proprietress, Irene, is the perfect host to the artsy types that frequent here.  Califa is a hipster microbrew and a cozy place to settle in.


Always a perfectionist, after 2 weeks I had not improved as much as I would have liked.  While I liked Ana and Marcial, I rarely saw them.  Marcial was a computer programmer who had a big project due at the same time while I was there so he was working long hours.  Ana made me breakfast and dinner every night, but never ate with me.  We would have short superficial conversations, she would turn on the television for me, and then go back to her housework, a job that she proclaimed to love.  Interestingly enough, the tragedy in Paris occurred while I was in Córdoba so I watched the news coverage with Ana who would repeat the important points afterward in case I had missed it during the newscast.


My frustration with class grew and grew.  I wanted to be a perfect Spanish linguist.  I hated to make mistakes.  I was hard on myself.  In hindsight, it didn’t help that I spent so much time writing (this blog in English) and reading (in English).   I only spoke Spanish with my classmates, my instructors, and anyone else I encountered, but I spent so much time thinking in English that it set back my progress.  While I know I improved tremendously, I was troubled by how much money I had spent and time I had committed and the fact that I was soon leaving the Spanish speaking world for the foreseeable future. Ah, the mind of an overachiever….   My biggest obstacle was understanding, detecting the nuances that are unique to each individual speaker.  I had to make peace with the fact that I wasn’t perfect.  Hard to believe, I know.


The thing with goals is that sometimes they need to shift and be fluid and you have to know when the time has come to make that distinction.   I had to admit to myself that I may never fool a native speaker into thinking I am one too.  Learning to speak Spanish will be a long term process.   There isn’t a defined end point where I can neatly check off a box.  But for me, being ok with this was a big step.  The whole point of this goal was to learn something new and suddenly I realized I had.


Now two months later and I am still studying Spanish every day.  Sometimes I listen to a podcast, sometimes I read a magazine article, and sometimes I run through grammar exercises just to keep it fresh.  Today, I listened to a podcast titled Ten Cuidado los Tiburones: te van a comer (not the best listening material for someone currently swimming in the ocean every day, but the point is…..I’m not giving up!)

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