Last month I began one of my big projects for 2015, relearning Spanish. It’s a lesson in humility, but I’m encouraged by how many options there are for motivated learners willing to practice at home.
When I attended college, personal computers had not yet been invented. There were no Macs, no iPods or iPads, no YouTube or online communities — no digital devices to serve as endlessly patient language tutors.
In those days the emphasis of Spanish instruction tended to be reading proficiency. You went to Spain for the summer or did “junior year abroad” as a more practical way to learn to speak like a native.
College classes were conducted in Spanish, once past the introductory level, but time constraints prevented teachers from coaching students on how to improve pronunciation or conversational skills.
We got coaching or corrections as a class, rather than as individuals. No one taught me where to place my tongue to roll my R’s or RR’s in the Spanish manner. Any native Hispanic speaker knew instantly that French was my primary second language.
Practically speaking, there was no at-home technology to reinforce listening, pronunciation, or sentence construction in a foreign language. We were limited to handwritten exercises, language labs and audio-tapes (analog, not digital).
Language labs were special classrooms with analog A‑V equipment, available only at prescheduled times.
Instructional focus was on the basics: vocabulary drills, grammar lessons and written Spanish. We learned to read and write in Spanish, to understand its logic and grammar; however, we struggled to use our Spanish in real-world settings. Our conversational skills lagged far behind…
I could read Don Quixote or Cien Años de Soledad, but I could not discuss music or current events with native speakers, at their normal pace.
My Spanish-speaking heyday was a self-guided tour of Spain with my husband. We rented a car, navigated across the country, chose where to stay with the help of a Spanish-only guidebook, booked hotel rooms by phone, ordered meals off Spanish-only menus, shopped, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Estábamos muy contentos.
21st Century Language Lessons
Fast forward to 2015, and my Spanish vocabulary has evaporated, for lack of use. My language recall is pathetic.
Until last month, I could not remember how to conjugate the most basic verbs — but I still understand the rules for gender matching, the rationale behind the tenses, or when to use the verbs ser, estar or tener. The logic of the language, but not its content.
As I work through my multimedia Spanish lessons, I’ve noticed that my listening skills are better, more nuanced than before. I hear and understand more clearly. As a result, I’m getting a lot of benefit from the expensive Living Language course I purchased from Amazon.com last month.
Who knows why? Have I gotten better at listening as I’ve matured?
Perhaps there’s less pressure from my private digital tutor, ever patient with my mistakes. I can repeat a sentence or a phrase as often as I want — something that was not practical with analog-only audio-tapes.
What I notice most is how clumsy my tongue has become, for lack of practice. There’s a big gap between the sounds I “hear” in my brain and what comes out of my mouth.
During drills my tongue feels slow and clumsy, easily tripped up by the challenge of rolling my R’s like the native speakers, or trying to remember to pronounce the V like a soft B. My tongue gets stuck, I flounder, and the digital instructor is already onto the next drill activity. It’s humbling, but only my cats are listening…
My brain can “see” the words as they would be written, but my tongue rarely dances from one word to the next at the pace required by the practice drills.
I’m finding some very helpful YouTube videos that explain how to position the tongue to trill that R. I’ve tried a couple, and already it’s getting better.
As I practice and re-learn this beginner-level Spanish, I find myself observing the many differences between then and now: how I learned Spanish at college, and the options available to me today, thanks to YouTube, my Mac, iPhone and iPad, a CD player in my car, and the Internet for additional drills and practice.
I’m learning how to use the iPad keyboard differently, in order to access the accented letters such as ñ.
As for continuing ed classes, I’ll wait until ready for a conversational class.
In the meantime, by the time I get to Mexico next month, I will know how to count to cien and conjugate the common verbs, in the present tense. I’ll have a 100-word vocabulary, the most basic words. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
Now if I could only say perro…