Speaking a Foreign Language

Posted on March 20, 2012
by FeliciaOctocog

Wow, it has been a long time since I have blogged.  Life has a way of intervening doesn’t it?  I recently had the opportunity of traveling to Argentina with my family.  After coming up with many reasons not to go (too expensive, not a good time, etc.), I finally gave in to the pleasures of vacation and a first-time trip to South America and the Southern Hemisphere.  I had only a month to prepare for this trip and worked furiously to finish all my grant applications, take care of email, and make sure the staff was all set for coverage while I was gone.  However, the biggest challenge was taking a crash course in Spanish.   Hard to believe that I have worked with Spanish speaking youth for 10 years and my Spanish is so non-functional.   I have so many great excuses. I am trying to teach these children English so it is better if I don’t know Spanish because then it forces them to speak to me in English.  Now that is a good one.  How about I am too old to learn a new language – ok that is pretty lame.   However, I truly regretted not making more of an effort to learn this language.

I quickly discovered that my vocabulary consisted only of school vocabulary and was largely useless for travel.  I knew the words for homework, backpack and stapler but could not come up with the words for suitcase, ticket, or directions not to mention a hopeless attempt at conjugating verbs with an endless number of endings.  However, the most humbling experience was speaking the language.  Words come out wrong, people ask you to repeat it several times until they finally say, “Do you want to speak in English?”  A mere transposition of letters or putting an “o” vs an “a” at the end leaves your listener with that puzzled look on their faces.   As I get frustrated thinking that they are being difficult and must have understood me, I think back to my Spanish students who ask me about World History and I think they are saying word history and keep asking them to repeat and then finally asking them to spell it.   Yes, one misplaced or missing letter can make the difference indeed.

With our ESL kids, they do not get enough time in school or at home to practice their spoken English.    After failed attempts, people not understanding, and worse, people laughing at their mistakes, it is no wonder they just stop talking. Studies show that most ESL kids speak only 90 seconds a day in a typical school day.  That is why we really do our best to get our kids speaking in English and is why I don’t learn Spanish.

But my experience here in Argentina has really inspired me to learn this language and perhaps I will soon take on the study of this language in a focused and meaningful way. I will just have to keep my new linguistic talents secret, won’t I?