Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How I learned Spanish – III: Immersion

Before beginning the final part of this series (see parts 1 and 2), I want to acknowledge my source of inspiration for this theme. It comes from a book I have been reading, edited by Tom Miller, “How I learned English: 55 accomplished Latinos recall lessons in language and life” (National Geographic Society, 2007). The essays reflect the love-hate relationship Hispanic immigrants have developed with the language they had to learn in order to survive. Some are literal, others anecdotal and poignant or funny. For example, Rep. José Serrano (D-NY) about whom we have been blogging recently because of his Child Citizen Protection Act, H.R. 182, describes learning English from Frank Sinatra records. I recommend this book for all who are teaching or studying a language.

People often ask how I learned Spanish. They imagine that I will tell them of an intensive summer in Cuernavaca or Cochabamba, or perhaps – as one critic of one of my early translations into Spanish once wrote – a stint in the Peace Corps (this was not a compliment, but I was ecstatic – I didn’t think my written Spanish was THAT good!) The quick answer is that I studied it in college and, while I did take Spanish up to the intermediate college level, that is not really how I became fluent.

I learned Spanish by teaching English. My students became my friends and it was easier to attend the Spanish Mass with them after class. I became a Hispanic Catholic the same way I became an Anglo Catholic – by osmosis. Repetition is built into Catholicism by design. Eventually even the most stubborn brain can remember the Creed without resorting to a missalette.

I also made an effort many years ago to create an “immersion” experience for myself. I determined that I would do something in Spanish every day. It might be talking to the cleaning staff at the health club, listening to music, or reading a news story in Spanish on the Internet. I examined daily activities and looked for ways I could integrate Spanish into my routine. Here are a few examples:


  • Reading the Bible and saying daily prayers in Spanish
  • Listening to Latino pop and alabanza music while working out
  • Scanning Google News in Spanish and reading the free Spanish language weekly newspapers
  • Speaking Spanish whenever I can to the few colleagues who are bilingual, the brothers and sisters in Church, janitors, waiters, and busboys, the young lady from El Salvador who fixes my morning bagel with cream cheese, lost tourists, etc...
I’m not a big TV watcher, though watching broadcasts in the language one is trying to learn is a good technique for those who enjoy it. I do read novels and I now try to buy and read contemporary works in Spanish. I am not talking about great works of literature but the Spanish equivalent of the pulp fiction I would otherwise be reading in English. What is trash in English seems virtuous when read in a foreign language.



My Spanish took a quantum leap when I joined the charismatic renewal. I was going to just sit quietly in the back and listen but my hermanos and hermanas wouldn’t let me. María, the coordinator, assigned me to lead prayers aloud. I was nervous. I said: “My Spanish isn’t good enough. I don’t know what to say.” “Don’t worry,” she replied. “Just start the prayer and the others will chime in.” So I started with the “oración de gracias” – perfect for beginners. Anyone can say “Gracias Padre” for something – por mi familia, mi casa, mi trabajo, etc…” I moved on and now I can even lead the “oración del Espíritu Santo” which is daunting for native Spanish speakers. Today, when I pray aloud for someone, I lapse into Spanish. English feels awkward for public prayer; I don’t have the words.

It was the same with leading a Bible study. I had led them in English but when Luis asked me to lead the group in Spanish, I demurred. He kept asking and then he tricked me. Leading the study himself one day, he used the Socratic method and showed me that in fact I did have enough vocabulary to talk about the Sacred Scriptures. It takes me longer to prepare than others and perhaps I’m less spontaneous, but today I can teach about the Bible and our Catholic faith in Spanish.

Immerse yourself long enough and your very soul changes; the boundaries of your cultural identity start to fade. I no longer feel like a “gringa” stranger in the Renovación and am actually taken aback when a newcomer expresses delight that a norteamericana would care enough to participate. Mostly I am what I always longed to be: just another hermana. Recently one hermano, Carlos, jokingly asked me after a Bible presentation in which I used too many nosotros los Hispanos…”: “Solo tengo una pregunta -- ¿Dónde aprendiste inglés?”

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