By Carmen Poon
Before I get started, I have a confession to make. I am a recovering perfectionist. Since moving here, I have fallen off the wagon of recovery a couple of times. Some of what follows comes from that place.
I’m sure that you are familiar with the expression “use it or lose it” and this definitely applies to languages. It is particularly true of people who learn a language as an adult. An adult who is fluent will not lose all of his/her ability in a language if it is not used daily, but generally there is a degradation of the vocabulary and structure without regular exposure and use.
Although I studied in Canada, as a university student, I was pretty much immersed in Spanish 5 days a week. I took classes in Spanish, read Hispanic literature and also read academic essays in Spanish. During my lunch time and coffee breaks I would hang out in the Centro de Tertulia (Spanish Centre) at the University of Calgary. There, under the watchful eye of the coordinator Amelia Labbé, who was one part teacher, one part den mother, and one part butt kicker, we would help each other with homework, critique each other’s essays and gab in Spanish. By the time I graduated I was fluent.
One year I got a scholarship and I studied in Madrid, Spain. I was there for two months and again was studying, reading and socializing almost completely in Spanish. When I arrived in Spain, I was already fluent, but my level of fluency increased markedly after a few short weeks. I didn’t actually notice it, but a Costa Rican friend of mine, with whom I had been corresponding via e-mail commented that my Spanish had visibly improved. I was stunned. How was it better? I wasn’t aware of any change. She told me that it was clear that I was spending time around Spanish-speaking people, because the structure of my writing was becoming more “Hispanic”. Well olé okay! Both my fluency and my confidence level increased during the remainder of my trip.
When I graduated and began working as a sessional and contract teacher, I moved away from being pretty much immersed in the language every day. There was some degradation of my language skills, but I was still fluent and confident that I could get my level back up if I had the need. Someday I hoped to live in a Spanish-speaking country and amp up my language skills again. I wasn’t sure that it would ever happen and then, as you know, we moved to Mexico. I was ecstatic. My Spanish was going to rock even more than during my trip to Spain! After all, I was going to live there, so it had to get better, right? (Get ready to press the big, red buzzer.) Buzzzz!
Wrong! I can remember initially saying to myself, “Don’t worry. It’s like riding a bicycle. You will get back into the groove and you will be flying, just like in Spain. Unfortunately for me it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Don’t misunderstand I was and I still am fluent. I have successfully lived in a Spanish-speaking country and I have performed a variety of tasks all in Spanish for nearly two years. I have worked, gone to the emergency room twice, consulted lawyers, conducted business meetings, spoken with agitated parents, and served as an interpreter in various capacities. Nevertheless, I still have not achieved that sweet feeling of being mistaken for a native speaker since I moved here. (When I was in university, this actually happened a couple of times and it was quite the confidence booster.) Moreover, I do not feel that I have achieved that same level of fluency that I had attained during my short time in Spain.
I have a Spanish-speaking girlfriend who lives in the United States who went through a similar experience, but with English. I visited her a little over a year ago and expressed my frustration. She assured me that with time my more Anglophone linguistic idiosyncrasies would become less and less prominent, but to date this has not happened. A fact, which until very recently, sat like a burr in my sock constantly irritating me. I live here for goodness sake! Why, I pondered was I not improving? Then one day at work I had one of those so called light bulb moments.
On two separate occasions I was asked to help the grade 1-2 Spanish teacher with her class and made an interesting discovery. For the first time ever, I was not required to speak English with the students, but rather only Spanish. It was hard. Initially, I found myself automatically speaking English and repeating things in Spanish for clarification. I had to stop and mentally force myself to speak only Spanish. In that moment, I realized that since moving to Mexico I had not been speaking Spanish fulltime like I had in the past! What is more, I wasn’t really speaking English either. For five days a week, eight hours a day I had been speaking Spanglish. Then at home we spoke English because, well, we are English-speaking. No wonder I wasn’t making the improvements I wanted! In that moment I decided to be a bit gentler with myself and also find more opportunities to practice my Spanish. I resolved to read a bit more in Spanish and maybe join a book club.
As I mentioned, until quite recently I was an English teacher at a private school here in Puerto Vallarta. It was a very challenging job for many reasons, but one of the most challenging obstacles was language. During my time there I taught preschool, kindergarten and grades one and two primary. Since I taught some of the youngest students in the school, this meant that there was more Spanish used with my classes than there would be with the older students. The children simply did not have a strong enough grasp of English to express themselves in all situations.
For me, it was very challenging teaching Spanish-speaking children, because they would frequently criticize my Spanish! As we all know, kids can be BRUTALLY honest about what they think and my students did not hold back. I can clearly remember telling a grade one student to not tip his chair back onto two legs, because he could flip the chair over backwards. Both he and his group mates looked at me like I had a horn growing out of my head and told me that I had said it wrong. There was nothing wrong with my sentence. The syntax and grammar were perfect. I told them that they were wrong, but they were adamant. I was curious, so I asked them how they would say it. They supplied me with almost the exact same sentence, but with a different verb structure. I told them that yes, their sentence was fine, but so was mine. They wouldn’t have it. In fact, one of my young charges benevolently told her group mates that Spanish wasn’t my first language, so we had to be patient when my Spanish wasn’t so good. About that time, my hackles went up and I very pointedly told her that yes, I did make errors (I’m not perfect), but in this instance she was wrong. My Spanish was just fine and that was the end of it. After the school day ended, I asked two of my Mexican coworkers their thoughts about what had happened. I could not figure out why these kids thought I had made an error. When my coworkers heard what I said and what the kids thought I should have said they quickly cleared it up. My sentence structure although correct and completely understandable, was not what a Mexican mother would typically use with a small child. Since I was working with six year olds, they were only accustomed to how their mothers would say it hence, I had to be wrong. This was not the first time this happened.
When teaching my grade two students the rudiments of telling time I taught them the expression “What time is it?” and then supplied the Spanish equivalent, “¿Qué hora es?” so that they could understand what they were saying. Immediately, a good half of the class shouted out that my Spanish was incorrect and I was told that I should have said, “¿Qué hora son?”. “¿Qué hora son?” is often heard in Mexico, but it is grammatically incorrect. Basically, one is saying “What time are it?”. I didn’t think my seven year old students would understand verb-subject agreement, so I assured them that although it is commonly used in Mexico, “¿Qué hora son?” is incorrect. My class erupted into a complete uproar. Miss Carmen was wrong! What did she know? She was the English teacher! Luckily, I had a young Mexican university student working as an aide in the classroom. Only when an adult native speaker confirmed that I was indeed correct, did they finally believe me and settle down.
On days such as this, I got to ride a wave of righteous indignation, however, this was not always the case. There were days when my Hispanic verbal skills were definitely not up to the task. Have you ever tried to talk to a small child? They have little voices, they don’t pronounce their words correctly, many of them use incorrect structures and at times they are completely unintelligible. I sometimes find it difficult to communicate with very young English-speaking kids, so adding in a foreign language created even more complication for me. Once, one of my grade one students came in from recess sobbing inconsolably. She was crying so hard that she could barely breathe and was only speaking in tear-soaked sentence fragments between ragged, hiccupy breaths. I tried to get her to calm down telling her that I couldn’t understand her because she was crying so hard, but it was to no avail. Finally, I had to call to one of my Mexican coworkers for help. It turned out that two other girls had called her a baby, saying that she sucked her fingers. The offending parties were called over and with my co-worker’s help, we resolved the situation.
Another day, during recess one of my grade one boys spontaneously ran up to me and called me something that I didn’t quite hear or understand. Unfortunately for him there were two native speakers standing nearby. When I leaned in to ask him to repeat I was cut off by the Director of Kindergarten and another co-worker who told him in no uncertain terms that he had ONE second to apologize or there would be a formal reprimand sent home to his parents. At this point, he realized that he had (as my father would have put it) “crapped in his own nest”, gave a hasty apology, and ran off. When I asked my supervisor and co-worker what he had said they told me that he had called me a fart face! Later that day I posted the incident on my Facebook page and we all had a good laugh over it; especially my brother, who maybe enjoyed it a little too much saying that he had called me a fart face long before my student ever had! At the time it occurred, however, I was so embarrassed at my lack of understanding that I went and hid in my classroom until I had to start giving classes again. All of my education and work in Spanish had not prepared me for that!
I finally had to suck up my pride and realize that being fluent did not mean that I knew every word, expression, or insult. When I studied in university, we focused on proper grammar and more formal speech. I could write a twenty page paper about the representations of the feminine in some 18th century novel or discuss socio-political protest presented in a post-modern play, but I did not have the slightest idea how to say “temper tantrum” or “tattletale”. Nor had the term “fart face” appeared in any novel I read. (Interestingly enough, the “F-bomb” appeared in more than one work of literature that I studied in university, but not “fart face”.) After the sting of that day wore off, I realized that my Spanish didn’t suck. I just had not studied the vocabulary necessary for that particular work environment. This new job was part of my education in Spanish.
Sometimes the misunderstandings took on a more comedic tone. Last year, one of my youngest students who had a fairly strong speech impediment came to me complaining about one of her classmates. She pointed over to little Johnny, said something completely unintelligible, and then said the word, “puta”. For those of you who don’t speak Spanish “puta” means prostitute. It is a very strong swear here in Mexico and a sweet, little girl barely three years of age had uttered this word in my classroom! My eyes went huge and I looked at a Mexican co-worker who happened to be in the room. Had she heard what I had just heard? The look on her face told me that yes she had. We asked the girl to repeat herself, and the offending word popped out again. Both of us visibly cringed as we tried to figure out what she was actually saying, because it was clear that she was not using the word in a derogatory manner. Finally, my co-worker put two and two together. My students had been playing with plastic fruit called “fruta” in Spanish. The other student had taken her “fruta” away from her (not “puta”) without asking and she wanted it back! It turned out that my student could not make the “fr” sound and instead used the “p” sound. We kept working on her pronunciation.
Teaching in an elementary or preschool setting is basically controlled chaos. It is rewarding, but exhausting work. Flipping back and forth between two languages from moment to moment all day long while teaching even more so. I would provide instructions or introduce a concept in English and have to clarify with Spanish. Children would answer in Spanish and I would respond in English or coach the English equivalent out of them. Even though I was an English teacher, disputes and discipline were almost always dealt with in Spanish so that reasons for the consequences and my expectations were clearly understood by the students.
On one particular day, I had to discipline two boys for misbehaving in my class. It had been an especially grueling day and I was fried not only from teaching, but also from doing linguistic ping pong all day long. My brain was on strike and it took my mouth with it. I tried a couple of times to ask the students if they would have liked it if someone else had done to them what they had done in class earlier that day, but I simply couldn’t put the sentence together. I knew how to structure it, but I was completely exhausted and the words would not come in a coherent manner. I finally said in Spanish, “Look I am too tired to say what I want to say. Just don’t do it again, okay?” One of my seven year old students looked at me with great sympathy, patted my arm and said, “Poco a poco Miss Carmen. Poco a poco” (“Little by little Miss Carmen. Little by little.”) My frustration with his earlier behaviour just melted. How could I turn down such sage and well intended advice? That day, I went home and took a well deserved nap.
While writing this article I came to realize that I have behaved like a ginormous hypocrite. I taught language to children, adolescents and adults for sixteen years and one of my biggest recommendations to my students was to be gentle in their learning. Adults in particular can be excessively demanding, on themselves expecting a high level of fluency after a few short weeks. I can recall many times in the past when I admonished my students for being so impatient and harsh on themselves. I now realize that I too need to be a bit kinder to myself and enjoy the process. Learning the intricacies of a language is not unlike aging a good bottle of wine. To reveal all the subtleties and nuances you have to let it mature, sometimes for a goodly while, but the wait is definitely worth it. Oh, and for those of you who were wondering, “fart face” is “cara de pedo” in Spanish.
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