Wednesday, July 16, 2008

You can lead a horse al agua

We had an emotional blowout yesterday during Mommy and me Spanish.

I tried bringing my three kids to our small class, which met in our living room this time, while Carl went next door to do something handymanly at the neighbors' house.

Within moments, we were up to our ears in some serious "berrinche," complete with "gritos" and "acusasiones". I guess that's the last time I do the class para mama y para mi with tres mis. (Where are my accent marks? I did program them in but they're not working at the moment. Puede ser that the computadora needs to calentarse un poco.) Two of my three hijos decided that they wanted to be the maestra, and that I wasn't teaching the class their way. We had to call Dad in to bail us out fast.

What I want to admit here is what every abuela already knows, and what those of us who are still waiting for grandchildren are still learning. You can lead a horse al agua but you can't make him beber. John and Anna like learning Spanish, but only in their own time. It's not easy learning something from your own mother, especially when she expects you to be good at it right away. I know that--I still remember being a kid. At the same time, though, sometimes you really do want to learn, but just need to be able to find out how you connect with what you're learning, and what your ideal acquisition setting and style is going to be. My mom figured that out, and now I'm trying to learn it with my own three children.

We're working on discovering everyone's style and pace, and finding them the right tools and teachers. In the meantime, el agua is available, and no one is going to be dragged there kicking and screaming. Sometimes, I think, when we push too hard, the little caballo thinks we're dragging him to the water to be drowned, or to be pushed into a scary little boat, or he might just not be all that thirsty. So, taking a deep breath, I remember that Spanish takes time to learn, just like English, and that I was never surprised when my six- or eight-month-olds couldn't say a word, even when I tried to get them to talk. For now, they are listening very well, and that's excellent.

We're enjoying the "silent period" when children listen more than they talk as they acquire a language. I know that in a few months, or years, or a decade perhaps, with exposure to Spanish on a regular basis, everyone in the house will become bilingual. And then the "berrinches" we witness on the homefront, albeit few, will happen in two languages, along with el amor y la alegria. I'm waiting for that day, but resisting the urge to push for it, because if I push it may never happen.

En paz,

Friday, July 11, 2008

Spanish Sí, join the club

Naming Spanish Sí was not something that happened overnight.

I started with Se Habla Español, but the amazing SCORE coaches who provide consulting through the Small Business Administration suggested that to a monolingual American grandma who might want to hire a Spanish tutor for her grandchild, the phrase Se Habla Español would mean absolutely nothing. They suggested Conversational Spanish, and I liked how descriptive that was, but it did not encompass the spirit of this endeavor.

Spanish Sí (pronounced like the letter C) has been mis-spelled as:
Spanish C
Spanish See
Spanish S? (I guess that mass mail marketer didn't have a clue about typing accent marks).
Spanish Sc

But the winner is a mispronunciation that my dad made famous. When he saw the magnets on my minivan, he said, "Spanish Sigh? What's that?"

Dad is famous for a dry sense of humor, a love for Spoonerisms and malopropisms of all sorts... and he was just kidding. But I was asked the same thing by a student who, actually, wasn't.

Maybe I can start a business teaching Spanish for Budding Poets and call it Español por Suspiros. Maybe I can teach you and your significant other how to write romantic poetry, by reading some of the world's great literary figures.

For now, my students tend to be in the categories of travelers, children, workforce folk, and ministers of God's love and grace. And the fact that so many people want to learn Spanish and make a great effort to learn is, to be honest, a sigh of relief.

Worksheets are SO passé

Recently I invited someone to learn Spanish with a group of friends, by attending a very fun event that repeats regularly, which happens almost entirely in Spanish, and involves learning something useful and new. I know that the person I invited is at least moderately interested in learning the skill in question. He is also rather desperate to learn Spanish, for personal (romantic) reasons. Attendance in the event in question certainly involves a commitment (one hour per week minimum), but does not cost anything other than time.

The [lame] excuse I received was: "I don't have time. I only have limited free time, and I want to learn Spanish before I learn anything else."

To be fair, I will credit the person with ignorance. He is, after all, a monolingual American who has not had a fair chance to learn a second language. Chances are, his first exposure to Spanish was either in jr. high and high school, and perhaps he never thought seriously about learning until, I would venture to guess, he met Hispano-parlante people of interest, either at work or in the ever-amorphous landscape of a twenty-first century personal life. Now, highly motivated to learn, and approaching middle age, he finds himself in (what my dad would have called) a bind, or a pickle.

I am not one to use coercion to get people involved in something new. However, I have resorted to begging. In this particular case, I resolved to engage in neither. I will take out my frustration in this situation through what the blogging world may refer to as a vent, by just letting loose with the conviction that worksheets for learning a new language are SO passé.

Sometimes I feel like taking someone by the shoulders and shaking him and asking, ever so gently, "How did your mama teach you English in the first place, son?" I don't know about you, but my mama taught me English by talking to me. Listening to me. Laughing with (and sometimes at) me. By saying prayers, tucking me in at night, kissing me goodnight, and fixing me breakfast in the morning. You better believe I was dreaming in English by the time I was knee high to a grasshopper. And if it worked for me and my mama, it'll work for you.

Spanish worksheets are boring. I feel that I am well qualified to make such a bold assertion. After all, I started studying Spanish by doing worksheets. And I admit that there is certainly some merit in practicing a grammar point ad nauseum, or in writing out in longhand all the conjugations of a verb. I often encourage my students to write things down or to make flashcards or use repetition to the benefit of their memory skills.

However, the idea that a classroom or a textbook are the only (or best) ways to learn a language are illusions created and supported by this public school nation. Worksheets are busywork. They are easy to reproduce. They are easy to grade. They keep large groups of human beings occupied, during the dangerous, hormonally-charged and politically raging period of adolescence and young adulthood. Worksheets have their time and place, to be sure. Without them, young men and women might get married a lot younger, and our society would perhaps look very different. I am not entirely dismissing the validity of the occasional worksheet. Currently, I pay 10 cents a page, and confess in all contrition that over a twelve year teaching career, I have singlehandedly destroyed a small rainforest, which my FaceBook friends are only beginning to replant with their little green patch requests.

But don't let me mislead you. I hazard to say that you will not learn as much Spanish as you may want or probably need by just doing worksheets. Some things in this life have to be learned with hands, heart, ears, feet, mouth, and intestines. You may have heard that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. I don't know about that. My husband, bless his heart and his stomach, will eat just about anything I throw at him. That's one reason I married him--he's someone who likes my cooking. But I think that the way to a man's linguistic centers in his cerebral cortex may also be through his estómago. Anyway, it's a good reason to avoid Taco Bell in favor of the little Mexican places in your neighborhood, like La Rancherita (Hobart/New Chicago), or El Amigo (Valpo), or "Nuevo León" (Pilsen, Chicago). Or wherever you live.

Be brave. Join the Spanish Sigh Club. And let's hear your susurros and your gritos en español. As a language learner and as a teacher, I can only summarize the evidence I have witnessed with my own ears. My best students' success stories, and my proudest linguistic moments, have not been in a classroom. Spanish, like English, like Chinese, like Swahili, like Catalán, belongs in the real world. Get out there and use your skills, baby. Let's see how you sound in another language.

Te estoy escuchando,
Señora F.

Spanish Actores

Yesterday in our multi-age class at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Highland, we acted out the story of Moses and the bullrushes from the Old Testament.

One of the moms read the Arch Books version of the story, in Spanish, in rhyme (published by Editorial Concordia, part of Another mom dressed up as "el faraón" with a colorful blanket as a kingly cloak. Two girls wanted to be the princess, so they both dressed up in a Cinderella costume from the Disney store that I borrowed from my daughter. We wrapped a gold shawl around the two of them, and they were a collective princess. At age 5, with a keen imagination, anything is possible. We had actors play the parts of Moses' mom, sister Miriam, and brother Aaron.

We used a blue blanket and a doll in a basket to recreate the river scene. I interrupted the story on each page to send the actors in the right direction to act out each scene. The children repeated appropriate responses in Spanish as we told the story.

Move over, Dora! Interactive communicative Spanish has never been this much fun. There's nothing like hands-on learning, getting your hands dirty, wearing a costume, and speaking from the heart.

Hasta pronto,
Señora Fields

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


"Breaking up is never easy, I know," sings ABBA, el conjunto de rock de los años setenta. But a veces, saying goodbye causes us to look back, to appreciate, and reflejar on the past.

Today a very special class, Spanish for ministry, finished its initial semestre. What a clase--with students from Lutheran, Methodist, Jewish and Presbyterian backgrounds, with an age span from 8 months (my daughter, who visited us once), with a high school and a college student joining in sporadically, and a couple very serious students in their eighties--and representing a racially and culturally diverse group--nos juntamos to learn Spanish from a God-fearing perspective. We read los Salmos. We sang varios himnos. We read Scripture. We discussed la poesía, el arte, la literatura, y together we learned about culture, immigration, religion and ideas that are the mainstay of Hispanic cultura.

(Notice that I'm codeswitching. That term refers to using words from idiomas diferentes, whichever language comes out primero or makes more sense. It's often how real bilingual people really talk, once they know each other and feel relaxed and comfortable in both languages).

Today's class was unique. A friend from México spoke to us about topics of interest to those who work with immigrants: what coming to the USA is like and why people do it; what religious differences and similarities face people who transition into a new life in America; and why our governments operate the way they do, and how that affects our lives and those of others. If Spanish for ministry isn't about communicating in real life, then I don't know if it's really ministry. We watched a documentary called La Frontera, which brought us to the border of the US and Mexico in pictures, tele-journaling, and collage.

All in all, Spanish para el ministerio has been un gran éxito because we can use Spanish to meet others and share the Gospel ahora mismo, right here, right now. We decided that we like one another and our topic so much that we are only saying hasta luego, and we'll be back in two weeks.

Menos mal. I am glad that this was an easy goodbye and that we'll see each other soon. I really love this class.

Hasta pronto,