Saturday, January 31, 2009

Redefining "Normal": Making Room for Cultural and Idiomatic Assumptions

I received a very pleasant note from a student in my on-line Spanish class who is enjoying doing each and every available grammar exercise in En Linea, the Quia textbook published by Vista that we are using in class. I'm delighted to see a student taking advantage of the opportunity to learn another language, and I said so to the student and the group:

I appreciate your good attitude. Yes, learning another language is a lot of work. I have been surprised when hired for individual Spanish tutorials to find adults who actually believe that after one 60-minute lesson they ought to be able to understand the Spanish spoken on TV. The work of learning another language is a time-consuming venture, and one that will reap many rewards throughout life. The investment of time you put in now will yield over years, but building a good foundation requires spending the hours studying, practicing, reviewing, and honing your skills. I commend you for taking advantage of all that En Linea offers you. You're getting your money's worth out of this course.

The same student had noticed the use of the article in sentences that in English might not require the use of the word "the" and I was pleased by the careful observation that comes from spending time immersed in a new language. I responded thus to the wonderful question:

Spanish uses the article to generalize, whereas English does not, so that the book entitled _War and Peace_ by Tolstoy is called _La guerra y la paz_ in Spanish. Note also that while we capitalize nearly all words in a title, in Spanish, only the first letter of the title, along with proper nouns, are capitalized. Thus, we see that one language does not fit conveniently or exactly over another language, with perfect equivalents, and you will be learning a new series of cultural practices, norms, and rules along with the vocabulary lists you've been memorizing.

The student went on to make some very careful questions relating to observations on the difference between use of the definite and indefinite articles--grammatical questions on usage that arise after spending time immersed in practice expressing himself in the target language.

If you have the time to learn a language, take advantage of the opportunity. You'll never miss the soap operas or sit-coms that you didn't watch while you were puzzling over a new grammar concept. Your brain's neurons will thank you for the workout. If you have the motivation, make the time by finding small windows. Five minutes a day is worth more than three hours of cramming before an exam. I suggested to a busy working mother of three who is in my intermediate Spanish class that she keep her textbook in her car, so that before she enters work where the demands of being a manager overwhelm her, she can spend just 5 minutes reviewing the week's lesson so that her brain can digest the new information a bit at a time.

Making room for the cultural norms that go hand-in-hand with linguistic acquisition also requires time. The idea of savoring conversation along with a meal that is shared with family and friends, rather than devouring fast food while driving and listening to the radio, is an example of a cultural custom that may seem valuable but unattainable, until we open our lives to another way of seeing "the right way to do things."

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