Wednesday, January 11, 2006

My Spanish language journey

I started learning Spanish by reading textbooks and watching telenovelas. I just googled the first novela I watched, Entre el Amor y el Odio - it finished its U.S. run in the summer of 2003. I only caught the last month of it, so that's when my journey began.

My impetus: the few hours I spent with a day-laborer while building my patio that summer.

In the ten years since I built my house, the Hispanic population of North Carolina has grown from 153,000 to 600,000 and Hispanics comprise at least 40% of the construction industry - some estimate as much as 65%.

At any rate, the man who was helping me build a patio in 2003 spoke no English.

I was frustrated. I'm accustomed to TALKING to people who work with me. I went upstairs and dug around till I found a Spanish-English dictionary (both my kids studied the language) and started painfully stuttering out a few awful sentences.

The guy was utterly fascinated! Had he never seen a dictionary before? He asked if he could borrow it during lunch hour and spent the whole hour with his head buried in it. As I drove him home we tried elementary language exchange. I was able to understand his telling me he lived in a three-room apartment with eight other single guys! Before he left I drew him a map to a used book store where he could find a dictionary of his own.

Not only did this episode make me hot to learn Spanish, it gave me a goal: I wanted to help my new neighbors learn English.

I wanted to help adults, but the only outlet for this I could find (El Centro Latino) was not set up to accept help. Besides, I soon saw that most adult Hispanics are too busy working to have time for language lessons. So I decided to revise my goal and work with kids.

It's the niños who are dragging their families into English language; I guess it's always been that way with immigrants. The Hispanic team which painted my house was headed by a man who spoke no English - his eight-year-old daughter was doing business for him.

So now, I work in an ESL reading program at Ephesus Elementary school, reading with four kids, a half-hour with each of them twice a week.

I want to tell you about that soon, but I'll finish for now by telling you there is an enchanting atmosphere in the second-grade classroom where three of my kids study.

Their teacher has no Spanish at all, but there is a lively self-help network among the Hispanic kids in her class. The kids who are bilingual seem to have antennae - they instantly appear when one of the kids with no English is lost. A flurry of Spanish solves the problem. They look out for each other so tenderly!

Recently I watched two of "my" kids get a special lesson with their teacher. These two began this school year with no English at all, not even a word for "hand" or "book" or "hamburger." Luis has been pulling ahead because he is less afraid - Frida is a perfectionist and it's holding her back. But what I saw during this lesson that hit me right in the heart was that Luis, with only a fraction more English, is already helping Frida - his eyes glow when he sees he has some shred of understanding he can share with her, and she is looking to him happily to receive it.

This work is more fun than I can possibly tell you.

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At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Sylvia Seaberg said...

Greetings from California. Very interesting and touching entry about learning Spanish. Thank you very much for your recaps of Alborada. I am trying to become fluent in Spanish by taking Spanish at the local JC (a gas!) and attempting to converse with my patient and amused mexicana coworkers, but watching Alborada is the most fun of all and your clever recaps are an invaluable aid. By the way, I think the cochinilla to which Juana refers are the insects from a cactus, dried and boiled, from which dye is extracted and used for culinary purposes and for dying textiles. It's usually on sale here around the holidays...yum, crushed bug cookies. Another bonus to finding your site, I collect cool world music and you are in a band! I ordered your CD and my coworkers and I can't wait to play it in our work loft, hurrah...
Cheers, Sylvia

At 9:08 PM, Anonymous Pearl said...

How great to get engaged in the setttlement of immigrants. It's such a straining time for them.

At 11:45 PM, Blogger Miguel said...

Blessed be!

I have been reading your blog for a bit (as you might know), and have been incredibly gratified to find your comments to a couple of my posts (for which I am very grateful)-[awkward redundancy alert?]. I knew you had some "little brown ones" (to quote the elder Bush) you mentored, but had no idea you liked our culture so much (were it just the one--there are, in fact, varieties).

I liked you from a long way back. Now, I like you more.

On behalf of all of us who came here, feeling cold and lonely, and found in the love and support of those like you both warmth and welcome, Thanks! A Thousand Thanks! A Million Thanks.

If I were there, I'd hug you tightly!


At 7:48 AM, Blogger melinama said...

Thanks everybody. Miguel, you should tell the story of your own journey on your blog, if you haven't already...

At 3:59 PM, Blogger Chris McNaught said...

What a wonderful insight for you. I too have been grabbed by the Spanish bug. I work as a school counselor in a district with a 40% Hispanic population, most of whom come from Mexico. A large percentage of that population speaks little or no English, which limits my ability to be an effective counselor to those kids and families. I realized that the language deficiency was mine, not theirs.

I will be attending a Spanish immersion course in Mexico this summer. I want to learn Mexican Spanish. I will be living with a Mexican family for eight weeks. Although the language acquistion will be great, I think the culture acquistion may be more important in my job as counselor.

Next month I will be taking a Conversational Spanish class to give me a head start before I go to Mexico.

¡Buena Suerte!

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello to all!!

I came across this blog and I found it fascinating. I am a mexican that grew up in the states and since very early my mother would not allow me to lose the integrity of my first language. The "novela" Alborada is not only entertaining but extremely well done. Every element is very apropriate to the period. They even went to lenghts of utilizing the language, words, modism apropriate to the time. "La cochinilla" that they mention is type of metal that they mined. The word means many things including insects and female pigs but it this case it is a metal. Just an FYI

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Jean said...

Hi Melinama:
Your Spanish journey was very interesting. I had studied French for many years. Then I went on bird watching trip to Guatemala and I hated that I couldn't say anything but por favor and gracias. (the motmot part of my user name is a very cool kind of bird found in Central & South America.) When I came back, I started studying Spanish using the Pimsleur tape method, which was very good. Then I found a Mexican woman as a teacher. I thought watching Spanish television might be useful and fell into the world of telenovelas. The first one I watched was Gata Salvaje - it was almost over before I discovered the close captioning. Now in addition to Alborada, I'm watching Contra Viento y Marea, a novela so ridiculous that I can only imagine your "treatment" of it.
In addition to using Spanish when I go birding in Central & South America, Trenton, NJ, where I live is becoming a hispanic city so knowing Spanish is a definite advantage. I really like the language too. In addition to watching televnovelas, I am reading the novels of Isabel Allende with my teacher. They are fabulous.
Your Alborada summaries are so funny they make me laugh out loud so I get pleasure out of watching it and then reading the summary. I also enjoyed your summaries of Amor Real and Entre Odio y Amor read after the fact but nevertheless very entertaining.


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