I grew up in New Mexico and Texas, where it was common to hear Spanish spoken. I basically flip-flopped between states as a kid, moving back and forth, to this city or that city, changing schools and environments, and not to mention making new friends.
If you happen to be from the southern United States, you are familiar with the fact that there are many Mexican-Americans in New Mexico and Texas. I recall that there were many people in these two states that either only spoke Spanish, or spoke Spanish the majority of the time and English once in a while, when it was absolutely necessary. In addition, there were those, and many of them, that spoke “Spanglish”, using both languages in the same sentence and often “Mexicanizing” American-English words. “To take a shower” became “Hacer take un bath”. “To give someone a ride” became “Dar a alguien un raite”, etc.
I heard lots… And lots… And lots of Spanish growing up, but I didn’t speak a word. I wanted to understand it. Man, did I want to understand it, but I had no idea how to learn it.
It was early on that I developed an interest in languages and writing systems. No, not foreign writing systems, but my own silly concoctions that I created myself. When I was about 9 years old and living in Texas, I developed my own characters that coincided with the English alphabet. I suppose you could say it was more of a code than anything else. I thought is that it was cool. It was my own system. It was good for nothing though, expect for some temporal satisfaction for my curiosity. It didn’t stop there, I remember trying to make my own phonetic writing system, not realizing that there were others already in place and in use around the world, for example, IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) which has been around since around 1888.
Although my parents spoke Spanish, they never used to speak to me and my siblings in the language. By the way, they are not of Hispanic descent, per se. My dad was adopted by Mexican immigrants. My mom was raised, during her early childhood at least, by her Spanish-speaking step-mother and step-grandmother. As you can guess, they spoke Spanish very well, just not to their children.
Upon reaching the tenth grade in high school in New Mexico, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take a Spanish class with Mr. Geidd, who had come down from New York and had taught Spanish and Italian up there. He was a great teacher and quickly became my favorite because of his own interest in languages. So, I was the kid in class that really liked learning Spanish. I liked the vocabulary, the listening to the Spanish on cassette tapes that complimented the lessons. I was the kid who would study next week’s lessons while the others were still figuring out last week’s. Now, I’m not saying that I was better than the others. That wasn’t the case. There were many intelligent folks in my Spanish class. But what I am saying is that there was something different about me. I had an unexplainable passion for this language learning thing, and not only for Spanish, but other languages. I remember struggling feverishly to understand the Spanish subjunctive – and loving every minute of it!
I would spend some of my lunch breaks in the school library looking at the dictionaries in Russian, French and Italian. I even completed a project for my government class in which I made a poster of a newly created town with all the street names, buildings, signs and statues it Italian, even though I did not know Italian at the time.
The following year I took Spanish II. At the end of these two years, I had a basic knowledge of Spanish. I could read simple sentences and could understand some of what I listened to. But… I still couldn’t speak it well. Why was that?
Then life happened. I was busy making a living, starting and supporting a new family, paying the bills. Throughout the years, I bought a couple of Spanish books and cassettes and attempted to study them. I never completed these books. They just went back on the shelf and sat there, collecting dust. I still had the interest. It felt like I still had the passion. But what was missing was not time, believe it or not (we can all make time if we wanted to). It was motivation. I lacked the motivation to make it happen.
I had told myself throughout the years that I would not only achieve a high level of Spanish someday, but also learn Italian and maybe some other languages as well. In 2009, 21 years after I graduated high school, I decided to purchase a couple of Italian learning books and get at it. I studied Italian vocabulary and grammar for six long years. Yep. Six. Long. Years. At the end of all this, I could speak Italian like a native, hold conferences in Italian, give presentations for large companies in Italian. Oh, sorry. I was off in fantasy-land there for a minute. The truth is, I couldn’t speak at all. In 2012, I discovered an app called “HelloTalk” created by Zackery Ngai. If you’re a language geek like me, you’ve heard of it. HelloTalk is an app that was created to enable language learners to connect to native speakers of their target language all around the world. I used the app to speak to folks in Italy. I found that I could barely write normal, everyday sentences in Italian, even after all that study. I did improve my writing skills quite quickly, but I could still not speak it well. I set up Skype session with someone I chatted with on HelloTalk. It went horribly bad. I just did not know how to “produce” the words and sentences that express my ideas. I just couldn’t do it. It was embarrassing. Good thing that my language exchange partner was very understanding.
It was then that I realized what should have been so obvious – you have to speak to know how to speak. See, I was able to read Italian fine. I could write like nobody’s business. I couldn’t speak worth a dime. It felt like I had done all that work for nothing.
After this, everything changed. I will be covering more of this discovery of mine in a future post…