As a veteran ESL teacher, I am frequently asked what it takes to be a good language learner. I’ve thought about it a lot and, for me, it comes down to three things: an “ear”, the ability to perceive and follow patterns and, most important, a willingness to make mistakes.
1. “Ear”: You have to be able to hear subtle distinctions in sounds to pronounce well. Spanish speakers have great difficulty with English vowels which are more nuanced. “Bed” and “bad” sound alike to them and so are pronounced the same. As for me, I struggled mightily with “r” vs. “rr” and initially pronounced “pero” (but) and “perro” (dog) the same way. I was frustrated and when my teacher would correct me, I would drag the “rr” out exaggeratedly, impatient with my inability to produce the sound he wanted. Now, I’m told, I confuse “r” and “j”. My hermana and self-appointed pronunciation coach Vilma says I pronounce “pareja” (couple) as “pajera” (straw loft). I don’t believe her, but -- just in case she’s right -- I’m trying to speak more clearly (repeat after me: “La pareja vive en la pajera”…)
This being said, we have to let go of excruciatingly correct pronunciation at the beginning unless the learner is committing a gigantic linguistic faux pas. “I am folding ze sheet” gets a pass while “I am folding the shit” gets flagged.
Context can help. I remember a norteamericano priest offering up a prayer for what sounded like “vAcaciones” and thinking “I could use a vacation too!”…until he added “sacerdotales”. Oh. The father was praying for “vOcaciones”! Those vowels will get us every time. Another Jesuit friend unintentionally uses inclusive language, talking about a “Dios todopoderosA”. I smile quietly when I hear it.
2. Patterns: It may seem that in English there are 1,000 exceptions to every rule but there is a pattern in every language. This helps, especially for learning verb conjugation. If you can catch the pattern and replicate it, you will fare better than those learners for whom each sentence is a new discrete entity.
Then, just as we get into a comfortable routine, the exceptions come along to trip us up. One of my fondest memories is of an excellent student who, wanting to prove that she had taken my repeated admonitions that “in English the modifier goes BEFORE the noun” to heart, proudly announced: “Today is my off day!” We shared a laugh as I explained the difference between “day off” and “off day”.
3. Mistakes: We make them…again and again and again. If you are not willing to make mistakes, you cannot learn a language. It’s like ice-skating. Beginning skaters lose their balance and fall a lot, but the pros do too. How many times have we watched champion figure skaters attempt a difficult move only to end up sprawled out on the ice? They are champions because they TRY the difficult moves even when the probability of failure is greater AND because they don’t let those falls discourage them from skating.
I know I have made a lot of mistakes while learning Spanish. Mercifully most have been forgotten although I do recall telling a college professor that I had eaten “pizza de hombros” for dinner. He laughed loudly and then told me I had confused “hombro” (shoulder) with “hongo” (mushroom). We teachers laugh – hopefully WITH our students rather than AT them. How can you not laugh when a student tells you she works as a “baby sister” or a Spanish learner earnestly asks “¿Cómo te lamas?” – “How do you lick yourself?” – instead of “¿Cómo te llamas?”?
You can’t let the mistakes stop you from speaking. One of my most frustrating students was a Bolivian professional woman – a legal assistant in her country – who was absolutely phobic about saving face. Her written English was quite good but she would not speak. I asked questions in English and she would answer them correctly…in Spanish. She wasn’t stupid, but she could not learn to speak English because her fear of making mistakes blocked her.
I still make mistakes. “Por” and “para”, “ser” and “estar” still get mixed up when I’m tired. I muddle up subjunctives and reflexives and completely throw in the towel when having to form complex conditional phrases in Spanish. Pero no me doy por vencida. I keep talking and stumbling.
Recently, “Coach Vilma” informed me that I was pronouncing the “h” aloud which should be silent in Spanish. After enduring this fault for almost a year, she exploded in frustration: “You say you work with Padre Hoyos. It’s time for you to start pronouncing his name right!” ¡Que vergüenza! God bless Padrecito, who never said anything about that audible “h”. Gracias, Padre “’oyos” por tu paciencia conmigo y gracias, hermana Vilma, por haber corregido mis errores.
Photo: Olympic figure skating champion Sarah Hughes falls.