Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Semester in Review: How to Talk to a Language Learner

Learning a language is humbling.  Some days are good, but on others, it feels as though my language ability has been reduced to that of a four-year-old.  

Teaching a language is equally humbling.  It becomes obvious that any skill with language that I might claim is largely due to the fact that I'm a native speaker.  When I have to sit down and think about what I say so that my students can understand, breaking it down into small bites, I realize how unconscious our usage is (and how convoluted English can be).  Even with great effort, I've created more than a few failures.  

What's so hard about it, you ask?  Yes, yes good question, I'm glad you asked.  Here are some major points to bear in mind:
  1. Speak slowly, but naturally.  We can't distinguish words when they're rushed together, even if they are familiar vocabulary for us.  Plus, we're processing a million things a minute - retrieving vocabulary, categorizing verb tenses, re-directing direct objects, ordering events and information, capturing the overall main idea, and on top of it all, wondering how in the world we're going to respond... so give us time.
  2. We're not deaf, so please don't yell.  It's embarrassing, and we're already self-conscious enough.  However, if you don't speak loudly enough for me to hear you with ease, I won't even try to understand, but you will be none the wiser. We're very good at noncommittal body language responses, you see.
  3. It is never, EVER funny when you try to dance circles around us with your words, no matter how much you enjoy it.  We will shut down and stare at you blankly, and the joke will be lost, and you will look like a big fat arrogant gilipolla.
  4. Your goal is to facilitate communication.  Think of it as marking a route on a map.  Highlight the most important places, and we'll eventually get there, even if it is by a less direct route.  What this means:  we rely heavily on inference, so especially enunciate question words and the subject; provide a definition (sandwiched within the sentence) after a less common word; and don't start your stories (or sentences) in the middle of the action and then backtrack.  Beginning-middle-end; subject-verb-object... at least at first.
  5. Slurred slang is hard to decipher, much less understand.  For example, gonna, wanna, 'sta luo.
  6. Be especially conscious of your time-order words.  Repeat and rephrase them to make sure we follow what you're saying.  And be sure to clarify when you're listening to us... verb tenses are one of the worst parts of learning languages.
  7. Multiple pronouns and indirect objects are confusing, especially if they are of the same gender ('he said he didn't'... or 'Mark said Antonio didn't'...) or group size (they and they).  If you change the person/subject of your story, make sure we catch it.   
  8. Don't assume we understood the first time, regardless of the fact that we're nodding.  Summarize every now and then, and we'll both be happier.
  9. Eyebrows knitted together is a sure sign of problems.  
  10. When you're listening to us talk, be a creative listener as you try to understand.  Remember, we haven't developed the rigid set of connotations you have, and we might cross my words a bit.  Think poetry :)
  11. When we consistently make the same mistake, please, please, please correct it.  Several times.  It won't hurt our pride; we'll be grateful. I promise.  And also, when you respond, it's helpful if you restate part of what I said correctly, modeling proper usage for us.  We notice and learn.
  12. Be curious about and interested in our lives.  Asking us questions about ourselves affirms our value and tells us that we're not defined by our lack of language skills.  
    1. If you need somewhere to start, consider: family, food, entertainment, school and education, celebrities, music, significant others, other travels, best experiences so far, biggest surprises so far, native scenery, religion, politics, holidays and festivals, sports, history, cultural identity, cultural differences, time differences, future plans, legends and folk tales and why they came to be name a few.  
    2. Please note that you may have to provide us with some basic vocabulary if you ask a very technical, specific question.
    3. Be careful when asking about homesickness.  It may put us in an awkward situation, depending on our experiences so far.
  13. Finally - and this is possibly the most important of all - If you use an idiom while giving me important information (directions, etc), I will personally see to it that your children and grandchildren learn every curse word in three languages.  Thank you, and have a nice day.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Day in the Life: Church

One of the biggest blessings of my semester here... Mountainview International Church. I have never been in a more welcoming, excited, passionate community before. I will miss you, dear friends.

Madrid, Spain - Mountainview Church from Christian Associates on Vimeo.

-- EDIT --

Today was a baptism Sunday. Four of my friends were baptized, either for the first time or as a renewal. A father baptized his son with contagious

joy. Despite having been raised in the whole church scene, I've somehow missed the sheer joy of what baptisms can be. Obviously, the symbolic weight of the moment is quite important, but how often do we, Americans, get to see the pastor slide down the ramp into the pool, not knowing how deep it gets, while another guy paddles out a ways on his back and splashes him playfully, all laughing at the utter absurdity of it all. And make no mistake, it is absurd, from any way you look at it... which is what the sermon (1 Cor 1) was about. Christianity doesn't make much sense from the front. But there was so much joy in the moment, celebrating together - the whole congregation trooping out the door over to the swimming pool, donning blue surgical shoes and crowding around to watch, laughing at the spectacle. I think this is probably what it looked like at the Jordan. You know, baptismals are convenient, but I think we miss a lot because the rest of us become passive observers clapping politely, and it becomes a ceremony rather than a celebration. We are a comfortable Church, but it's worth wondering how appropriate 'comfortable' is in the context of the Church. In any case, the Family grew a bit today : )

Richard, Tori, Daniel

Richard, Isaac, Larry

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Familiar Things

“Experiences are only as good as their catalogue and analysis.”  - Mars Chapman
I’ve had a lot of experiences.  I’m rotten at sharing them.  
For example, the other day I went to Retiro to soak up the Spanish sun and awoke to find a group of guys kicking the soccer ball around in a circle.  This would be no big deal, of course, and hardly worth sharing... except that not one of them had any pants on!  That’s right, they were playing soccer bare-chested and in their underwear - a wide array of underwear, might I add.  And they were having the time of their lives, delighted with their present circumstances and location. This is Spain.
Every week, I meet some new, interesting person.  There’s an African guy a few feet up the hill from my apartment who stands outside the Dia grocery store everyday holding newspapers and opening doors for old women.  The other day, I finally stopped to ask what he’s about.  As it turns out, he’s from Nigeria, and he’s working here to earn money.  He can’t return because of pending paperwork, but he says he doesn’t really want to anyway.  “Africa is rich,” he said.  “But the people are poor.  We don’t have even basic infrastructure - water, electricity, hospitals.  You learn that money isn’t important.  You can live without money, but you cannot get ahead without infrastructure.”  There’s an Iraqi man at church here, Mustafa, who has some incredible perspectives on The State of Things.  My German roommate, Florian, is a wealth of information and precision.  People are fascinating, and most of them are really, really terrific at sharing their experiences.  It’s easy to find them here.
So a lot of things have been charming.  A lot of things, though, have been grueling.  Hunting for an apartment was awful.  I saw some strange apartments, and some even stranger people.  Deal after deal fell through right before the closing date.  Living with a family an hour away from everything, this was a frustrating investment of time, as you can imagine.
Becoming familiar with the Spanish education system has been equally taxing, especially as an assistant coming from a full-blown teaching position.  As it turns out, a Fulbright ETA grant is, paradoxically, a sort of demotion.  While it translates to a low level of responsibility, it also means less power, control, and efficacy.  Hammering out an actual job description and personal mission for myself (because it was never given to me) relieved but did not console me.  I love my co-workers and I feel I can learn a lot from them.  There are just days that it seems a little futile.  (Please note - that’s an American measuring self-worth in productivity, right there.  Run and hide.)
Moreover, leaving a perfect life at home with truly wonderful friends, family, co-workers, a beautiful relationship, and a job I truly loved has been borderline tragedy.  If you feel you have not heard from me often enough, this is why, for I refuse to write when I am grumpy, irritated, angry, cynical, or just plain homesick.  It’s much more efficient to put on a brave face and rent a stupid car in Italy and have an adventure of sorts.  There are 15 days until I come home; I know this without having counted.

And yet, faced with the prospect of leaving, I'm realizing that over six months I have, in fact, carved out quite a life for myself.  I have friends from all walks of life and a multitude of countries (though admittedly, it's often difficult to escape the American expat community), and we meet up for tapas and savor the Spanish evening at a sidewalk cafe eating olives and patatas bravas with Tinto de Verano.  I only just located Golden Crisps at the Hiper [mercado] down the street, thanks to a friend's recommendation.  The annual Bollywood Festival last weekend breathed out colorful dances and delicious food.  Who knows what this weekend holds!  

The prospect of packing all of that up into two suitcases and leaving with little more than a truncated 'sta-lo is daunting and, if I'm honest with myself, borderline tragic.  To use the words of Prince Caspian, I've spent a lot of time missing what was taken from me.. but... luckily, I definitely haven't squandered what was given: experiences, experiences, experiences.  Memories, friends, food... that is my catalogue - the very beginning of it.  I am so thankful, and so, so blessed.  

Cultural Differences: Respect

From El Pais, 11 May 2011 -  "La Madre" by Elvira Lindo

One of Spain's leading newspapers, El Pais, usually has an editorial or two on the last page which examine some aspect of Spanish life or special interest.  A recent article specifically noted Spanish and American cultural differences when it comes to public figures and privacy, with specific reference to Barack Obama's mother.

The text, loosely translated, follows:

"Sometimes cultural differences are so obvious that we cannot reconcile them.  Two Sundays ago, The New York Times featured a front page photo of young woman kneeling in the grass, holding on her hip a black boy about three years old, who was dressed as a pirate: eye patch, earrings, a skull on his hat and a bad guy mustache. The girl could have passed for a teenager, but no, it was Ann Dunham, the mother of that child, Barry, Barack Obama. 

"I read four painstaking pages devoted to this strange woman who had two racial marriages - an African first,  an Indonesian after - in an era in which having mixed children presented a social challenge. The report tried to find the reasons why that white American girl picked up her six-year-old son and went to Indonesia for a such a long period of his life.  The journalist followed the steps of Ann Durham 40 years later, when almost all traces of their passage had been erased, but nevertheless, she had gathered enough pieces of the puzzle to conclude that this mother - fearless, ahead of her time, and wrapped in a mess of a life - had influenced the spirit of the president.

"I read it as if reading journalism. What's more, it was journalism, but then suddenly wondered what would happen if our paper devoted its cover to the mother of Zapatero or Rajoy.  And not a flattering story but one attentive to the shadows that all mothers hide, although to our memories they always appear perfect.  I do not think we would be able to wrap our heads around it, and no journalist would take the story, for it would be considered an unacceptable intrusion into privacy.  And maybe all this is true.  However, after reading such portraits, we learn something of the human journey: respect and insight are not incompatible."

This, of course, makes for some cognitive displacement on my part.  The Spaniards I know are unafraid to cross what Americans perceive as definite personal boundaries in day-to-day life.  However, when it comes to public figures, they back off completely.  (This may be why no one seems to know where various political parties' funding goes.)  In America, the situations are reversed: personal boundaries are carefully respected and evaluated for political correctness while public figures are subject to an informational free-for-all.  Why?  How did we arrive to these points?  Which is more valuable?  As the writer concluded, "respect and insight are not incompatible."  Perhaps there is room for improvement on both ends.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Political Climate

Spanish required to appreciate the following; no Spanish required 
to infer that Spaniards are not very happy right now.

The Indignados have been camped out in La Puerta del Sol (the center of the city) for several weeks now and don't show any signs of leaving.

And did you know... both political parties in Spain are funded by..... duh duhh duhhhhn.... THE GOVERNMENT??

Thursday, May 19, 2011

English Class

I work with several sections of students, one of which is the bilingual section.  Most of these bilingual section students have had English class since primary school and now attend every class in English except for math and language.  In class, they speak English.  Occasionally during recess they speak English.  They still make mistakes, of course, but it's really quite impressive to watch these 12-year-olds in action.

Generally, my job is to go over the speaking and listening exercises in their textbooks, helping them with pronunciation and providing them with a native accent to emulate.  Occasionally I teach an actual grammar lesson, but the teacher is much better at it, so I usually defer to her so I can watch and learn.

Today, however, she was called out of class and asked me to teach Reported Speech.  What Speech, you say?  Yes, that's what I said last week.

Take a moment to note the differences between these two dialogues:
- "Are you happy?" she asked him.
- She asked him if he was happy.

The second is an example of reported speech.  It probably seems like a no-brainer to flip the two, doesn't it?  But I would like to point out that the verb tense of the question changes, as well as the word order... and it is no longer a question.  And you use a different order for a question such as, "Where are you going?"  Additionally, 'may' changes to 'might,' 'can' changes to 'could,' etc.  Complicated stuff.

Luckily, I had introduced the concept with an activity on Tuesday, so I was familiar with the nuances.  Taking a deep breath, I started in.  It actually went quite well, and the students quickly picked up on the differences between reporting statements and questions, etc.  By the time we got to reporting orders and commands, the teacher was back and I handed it over.  She is really fantastic about asking students to apply the information immediately with verbal question-and-response, and after teaching about reporting commands, she began to go around the room, practicing.

The results were comical.

She began with Raul, who was looking at the examples in the book.  "Raul," she said evenly.  "Don't look at me like that!"

Raul's head snapped up and he looked around in utter confusion.  "But I..."

"No, begin, 'Pilar told me....'" Pilar corrected.

Slowly, understanding began to brighten his face as he realized what was going on.  "Ah!  Pilar told me not to look at her like that!"

A murmur arose from the class, who had been equally confused.  They seemed relieved.

Pilar moved on to Javi, a round, sweet boy in the back who is enthusiastic to learn and content to be himself.

"Javi," she asked.  "Will you marry me?"

The class erupted, and Javi's face instantly changed colors.  It was clear he was trying to construct a diplomatic response and having enormous difficulty; meanwhile, the whole class was urging him to say yes.  "Dude, Javi, she wants to marry you!!"

Pilar, not anticipating this response, finally stopped laughing herself.  "Pilar asked..." she crowed.

Relief swept over Javi's face as he burst into giggles.  "Oh!  Pilar asked if I will marry her."

"Would marry, Javi.  Would marry, not will."

"Pilar asked if I would marry her," Javi repeated.

Several students repeated this under their breaths, trying it out.  Angel, a brilliant bundle of constant energy and disruption, rattled off a few jokes in Spanish at Javi's expense.  Pilar silenced him with a look and continued practicing the language with other students.  Despite seeing their classmates' repeated confusion, thinking Pilar was really asking them questions, most of the class mistook the exercise and tried to respond to her statements rather than reporting them, and then they bashfully corrected themselves.  And as it characteristic, Angel's silence didn't last long, and he was soon back to joking.

"Angel," Pilar cried severely. "Shut up!"

He paused in his conversation, thought for half a moment, and flashed a quick smile.  "Pilar said... no, Pilar told me that I must shut up!" he replied, triumphant.

Again caught off guard, Pilar recovered quickly and laughed in spite of herself.  "Pilar told me to shut up," she corrected.  "You must use the infinitive, remember. But this is real life.  Be quiet."

"Pilar said that this was real life," Angel reported dutifully.

Alberto was listening attentively.  "Angel said that Pilar said that this wss real life," he muttered, half to himself.

Jose heard it and grinned.  "Alberto said that Angel said that Pilar said that this was real life," he called out.

Rafa picked it up.  "Jose said that..."

And it was downhill from there.

Now then, after all this, I am happy to report that the 1D students can successfully report what happened today.

Mission accomplished.