Thursday, March 6, 2008

Spanish: The Long and Winding Road

I will now start a series of posts on individual languages: how I became interested in them and grew in my knowledge of them. It makes sense to start with Spanish, the non-native language in which I have gone the deepest. In case you are wondering, I grew up in an entirely monolingual American English-speaking home. I had no non-English speaking relatives, although we rarely lived near any relatives anyway, since my father was an Air Force officer who was transferred from place to place every couple of years.

I started learning a few Spanish words as early as fourth grade (just numbers, as I recall). I had a little more exposure to it in 5th and 6th grades, but what I consider my serious study of the language began in 9th grade. This was the first language other than English that I studied in depth. It is also the only one other than English in which I have gained real fluency. I am thankful to various high school teachers and college professors for good basic grounding in the language. But credit for gaining fluency has to go to the Guatemalan, Mexican and other Latin American friends and acquaintances (and a very few Spaniards) with whom I have lived and talked, and whose books, newspapers and magazines I have read, for over 25 years now. From cultured scholars to humble Mayan peasants, Spanish has a wide variety of speakers and forms, and I am grateful for all the people with whom I have had (and continue to have) the opportunity to speak the language of Cervantes.

I acquired the basic of elements in high school. I also learned first-hand how dreadful the quality high school instruction can be. Of my four high school teachers, the first was mediocre, the second (who I only had for about 9 weeks) was good, the third was poor, and the fourth was good. The fourth one was a Texan of Mexican origin who taught at my final high school in Oklahoma. Subsequent experience has shown me a bit about why the instructional quality can be so poor. When I was an undergraduate Spanish major at the University of Texas at Arlington, I was amazed to learn that most of the students majoring in the language had only minimal interest in it. There were a few of us who really wanted to learn and did, but we were a small minority. And it was the poorly motivated C students who would say, "Well, if I can't get any other job, I can always get a teaching certificate and teach high school Spanish." Also, I have had occasion to review some high school teaching materials, both in print and online. The quality varies wildly, with "excellent" being a rare level of achievement. Anecdotal evidence of ignorant teachers of foreign languages in America is abundant, so I know that my experience was only unusual in that out of four teachers, two were actually good.

An Aside on High School Spanish Teaching

I don't want this to just sound like a whine about the situation. I often think about how things might be improved. Let's look at the typical training of a high school language teacher. I think my first teacher was an example of this. She was apparently a typical Anglo-American, raised monolingually in English. She majored in Spanish in college and got a teaching certificate. After college she went to Spain as a tourist for six weeks (she showed us slides from her trip). This last was her entire experience in a Spanish-speaking country. Even if she had been an excellent student in college, she simply had not spent enough time immersed in the language to develop fluency or familiarity with the culture and the real use of a lot of vocabulary. One error that she taught us was that tocador was the word for "dining room". She even commented in class that she thought it was an odd word for this meaning, since the verb "to eat" was comer. At the time, I just accepted assumed that she was right, since I certainly did not know otherwise. Sometime later I learned that she was quite wrong: tocador means "dressing table"; comedor (from the expected verb, comer) means "dining room". Why hadn't the teacher just looked in a dictionary?

So, what should this teacher have done to be better prepared overall? First of all, she should have spent a good deal more time immersed in Spanish. Many small, private, reasonably priced language schools around the Spanish-speaking world offer students the chance to live with a family while doing intensive study at the school. If all prospective teachers would spend a month every summer in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica or another Spanish-speaking country, living with a family and taking intensive language classes five days a week, the quality of Spanish instruction in this country would dramatically improve! I recognize that financial constraints might make this difficult, both because the person would have to spend money on the study and because they would lose a lot of time that might be spent working during the summer. So how about this: a scholarship that pays all expenses and gives the student around $2,000 on top of that to make up for lost summer earnings. The government could grant such scholarships to students with a good grade point average (say 3.0 overall and 3.5 in Spanish or whatever language) in exchange for a commitment to teach the language for four years in a public school. The government offers college scholarships for the study of "critical" languages, so why not scholarships to save high school language instruction from disaster? I know, I know... where will the money come from when we're spending $3 billion a week in Iraq? But that's quite another issue and I will spare you a rant about it here.

Back to my experience

After learning as much Spanish as I could in high school, I went on to major in it as an undergrad at the University of Texas at Arlington. My first professor, Dr. Lenard Studerus, was excellent. He taught Advanced Spanish Syntax. It was in this course that I finally got a good grasp on the subjunctive mood. He outlined what proved for me to be a simple, comprehensible set of points for knowing where to use the subjunctive. I talked with him in his office about it, and he said he had developed it, I think with some input from a journal article. But he said he would probably go back to the "old" system, which most students were used to, because most of them could care less about it anyway. Even the Spanish majors had little interest in learning good Spanish. Yegads. Well, I am glad that at least I happened to be in the right class at the right time. More serendipity!


After my first year at UTA, I spent a month in Cuernavaca, Mexico (about an hour south of Mexico City), living with a family, studying Spanish intensively in the mornings and listening to very interesting talks on culture in the afternoon. I also had some time to wander around the town. It was a fascinating experience! It also brought some trials, but overall, it was immensely helpful. When it was over, I felt that I had learned as much in that single month as I had learned in my previous five years of high school and college study.

The most important part of this was not the classroom instruction (it turned out I was beyond most of what they taught), but living with a family, learning to understand the daily conversation of real people in their ordinary lives. That was how I learned that ahorita did not mean "right now" but "in a while". That was how I learned that the teaching of English in Mexico was no better than the teaching of Spanish in the U.S. (One of the children in the family had been told by his English teacher that "spelling" meant campo in Spanish, though this word actually means "field" or "countryside".) It was there that I learned that Mexicans like to say bueno in response to most any statement made over the phone. It was there that I learned that the possession of an undergraduate degree was a fact denoted by a title preceding one's surnames for the rest of one's life in any and every context (thus, the governor of Tamaulipas state was "Engineer" So-and-so, not just "Governor" or "Mr." So-and-so). I could go on and on. But the main point is that while I might, with luck, have picked up one or two of these facts in my university classes, I would never have picked them all up, nor would they have had the same impact on me, if I had not lived in a Spanish-speaking country with a Spanish-speaking family in which no one knew any appreciable amount of English.

After receiving my B.A. I immediately began studying for my M.A. in linguistics. For some time, I had fond hopes of going to Irian Jaya, Indonesia and of writing my doctoral dissertation on one of those languages. But as it turned out, I went to Guatemala to do research on a Mayan language. I arrived in the Land of Eternal Spring on May 31, 1984, at the ripe old age of 23.

Yet More Immersion

Just before going to Guatemala, I spent another month living with a Mexican family, this time in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, in northern Mexico. It was another intense culture and language learning experience, followed by about two weeks of travel in Mexico.

When I arrived in Guatemala, I was full of energy and enthusiasm. But I soon underwent culture shock while spending a month living with a Guatemalan family in the capital, with a short break to visit a very remote Mayan town. If living in Mexico had been a change of pace, living in Guatemala was even more of a change. The countries border each other, but their cultures are very different. Guatemala has a large Mayan population (around 50%, though exact figures vary from source to source). Mayans are nothing like Latins. Even those who have learned to speak Spanish still have grown up with a very different set of cultural norms. I learned about Guatemalan accents, Guatemalan vocabulary, Guatemalan customs, and being searched by soldiers in rural areas, since they were trying to impede the progress of the guerrilla insurgency then active.

I lived in Guatemala for six years, until mid-1990, with a break of a few weeks to get married in May 1985, and one semester (Spring 1986) to finish my Masters. There I learned about all sorts of fascinating details of Spanish. One was the journalistic use of the past subjunctive for the simple past tense when the reporter assumed that the fact being reported was well known to the readers. For example, one would read, "Fulano de Tal, quien
fuera ministro de agricultura, compareció ante la bancada del partido X hoy...", meaning "Joe Blow, who was formerly the minister of agriculture, appeared before the members of party X [in Congress] today...". There was no grammatical environment here that would have led me to expect the subjunctive fuera instead of the indicative fue. Was it a typo? Well, as it turned out, it was not a typo. A search of that exceedingly useful book American-Spanish Syntax by Charles Kany turned up the explanation of this usage that I mentioned just before giving the example. This and a thousand other details I learned by living for several years in Guatemala. This kind of learning is almost impossible without immersion in a language.

Advanced Studies

In 1990 I moved my young family (wife, 3-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter) to Gainesville, Florida, to study for a Ph.D. in Spanish linguistics. These studies were exactly what I needed at that point. They helped me polish a number of rough spots that still remained in my Spanish. They helped me arrive at a level of knowledge of the language at which I could write fairly elegantly, not just express myself clumsily. Among other things, I read the entire poem of
El Cid in the original medieval Spanish. I received outstanding instruction in the finer points of Spanish syntax from Dr. John Lipski (now at Penn State). I also learned the outlines (and a lot of details!) of the development of the Romance languages from Dr. David Pharies (still at the University of Florida). And I learned about the details of the development of Spanish from Dr. Enrique Mallén (now at Sam Houston State University).


Although I did very well in my studies at UF, I started to incur some debt and decided I should seek employment to properly support my growing family (number 3 was on the way). I got a job as an editor of Spanish translations at Vida Publishers in Deerfield Beach, Florida. There, I had the opportunity to work with excellent colleagues and I learned a vast amount. I started out as a corrector of translations from English to Spanish. Not only did I get to fix a lot of atrocities in Spanish, but I had to continually delve deeply into the finer stylistic points of the language so that I could more readily distinguish between mediocre and good style and usage. I worked at Vida for 6 1/2 years and another 3 years at Sociedades Bíblicas Unidas (Latin American office of United Bible Societies). In both of these positions I was stretched and greatly improved.

In December 2001, I returned to Guatemala for what turned out to be 4 1/2 years. By this time my Spanish was very fluent and reasonably polished, but I always feel like I have ever more to learn. I regularly read
Prensa Libre, Guatemala's leading newspaper, online, and I still do translation as a form of gainful employment.


I realize this has been a rather long narrative, but I wanted to explain to the world how much time and work is involved in going from totally monolingual to very bilingual. I have read only one other first-hand description of this process, written Robert M. Laughlin as part of the introduction to his monumental
The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantan. I even had the privilege of talking with him about it in Mexico about 1989. I told him how interesting, even inspiring, it was, and he said he didn't know why more authors did not include such accounts in the introductions to dictionaries. Well, this is not the introduction to a dictionary, but if you are a sufficiently hardcore lover of languages to have stuck with me this far, I hope you have found this narrative of interest, regardless of how far along you are in your learning of one language or another.

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