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Part 3 How I Learned Spanish: “Learning” It In School
To recap, we know I’m bilingual, and the last two posts have started to share my story. In Part 1 we learned about how I grew up in a community and family lacking language diversity… or so I thought. In Part 2 I told you how, when I was about eleven, I found out my three year old cousin Sofia was bilingual, and I wanted to be like her. Once I realized I wanted to learn Spanish, it was a matter of finding out how to do it.
The following Fall, I started junior high at Poudre School District in Fort Collins. Fort Collins was, and continues to be, a fairly affluent community, which means that the schools are well funded. The opportunities I had for course selection were diverse and rigorous, and not only did I love school, I loved learning (and still do)! During my junior high years, apart from my required core classes,I was lucky to take three years of Physical Education, Home Economics, Band, and what was then called Foreign Language. I could choose from German, French or Spanish, and predictably, I chose Spanish.
Now, I know that I said we had a great school system, great teachers, and rigorous courses. This is all true… except for junior high Spanish. (This is my first year home with my kids after 15 years of teaching high school Spanish, and I know that the job is extremely difficult. I also know that a lot of Spanish teachers, for whatever reason, tend to be eccentric (if I’m being generous) and (if I’m being honest) flaky. Ask any school administrator who runs a Spanish program what the biggest difficulty is in maintaining their Spanish program, and they will probably tell you that it’s finding and keeping good teachers. That was job security for me, I’ll tell you!) At any rate, enrolled in Spanish class, excited to learn the language and communicate with my cousin, I could hardly WAIT for the first day of seventh grade.
Spanish in school started out in the typical fashion, where we were given a list of “Spanish names” that we could choose to become our moniker, or alter ego, in Spanish class. My Spanish name would be, for the next seven years, Sofia, in homage to my cousin and reminding me each day of why I was taking Spanish to begin with. And I needed that reminder every day because Spanish was by far my most difficult subject, both because of the teachers who taught me and because it didn’t come naturally to me at all!
Looking back, Spanish 1 class could be described as comedic or chaotic, but for me, at the time, it was incredibly frustrating. Our teacher was rarely in class because she had health issues involving a severe allergy to chalk. She had decided not to return to the building until chalk had been eradicated. This, mind you, was long before whiteboards even existed. I think we maybe saw her 10 times the whole year. (Clearly, there were other issues here). We were taught by a revolving door of either eccentric or downright irresponsible substitute teachers. I remember one teacher coming in and talking for period after period about his travels to Latin America, and then teaching us swear words. I don’t remember them all, but I am certain that one of my first words in Spanish was “mierda.” (You can look that one up if you don`t know what it means). Another sub, to his credit, did attempt to teach us to conjugate verbs. I remember sitting at the front of the class, furiously writing down everything he wrote on the board, even though it made absolutely no sense. With every clarifying question I asked, he became more and more irate, finally telling me to just “copy this down in your exercise book and you’ll get a good grade!”
Spanish 2 wasn’t much better. Our teacher had excellent intentions to teach us, but she was a strange looking woman who had a lot of trouble with discipline. I remember being in a class of mostly male students who would do anything and everything possible to distract her from teaching. Given that she LOVED to talk about the gypsies in Spain, the boys would ask her questions on the topic and she would literally talk the whole period and never teach us Spanish. When she wouldn’t talk about the gypsies, the students would ask her mean questions about her appearance, causing her to become irate and lecture us. (As an aside, in this class I met the woman who, to this day, is my very best friend. Marie sat behind me, and passed me a paper with the “dot game” on it. We would play that game quietly while Señora prattled on.) Luckily, our homework consisted of memorizing simple vocabulary and re-writing sentences in our Voces y Vistas student workbooks, and I passed with flying colors. After two years of “acing” Spanish, I couldn’t speak a word of it.
Entering high school in 10th grade, there were so many courses to choose from. Overwhelmed, I turned to the high school counselor for advice on which would be the best courses for me, as I was definitely on track to four year college. She gave me an aptitude test, which determined that I was best suited for a career in technology, and suggested that I drop Spanish and take a keyboard typing course. And that’s exactly what I did, given that Spanish didn’t seem relevant to my future after I had spent two years in Spanish class, and still didn’t really know anything. (I know, right? Drop Spanish class for typing? Looking back it definitely seems silly).
But fate intervened, and in gym class I made a friend who was taking Spanish. And she LOVED it… she practiced speaking it to everyone, everywhere, all the time. When I mentioned that I had taken Spanish, she was relentless in practicing with me. And it was fun! So, I signed up for Spanish class again for junior and senior year. My teachers for Spanish 3 and 4 were really great, and eventually became my colleagues during my first year of teaching Spanish in Fort Collins after I graduated college. The funny thing is, I had ZERO and I mean ZERO natural ability for Spanish as it was taught in class. I was terrible at memorizing lists of vocabulary and verb conjugations (I still am!), and every single time I was called on to speak, I froze.
I didn’t keep taking high school Spanish because I was motivated by my cousin anymore, as she had almost completely stopped speaking Spanish when she entered school and was perceived as “different.” (Another common problem for bilingual kids, and you can read more about it here)
I didn’t keep taking it because I was good at it. I kept taking high school Spanish because, every Friday, we got to listen to a popular song in Spanish. My teacher would remove key words, and we would listen to the song and write in the words that we hear. (This is a classic language learning strategy, and I used it often with my own students. If you aren’t familiar with this technique, you can see an example here from one of my go-to language learning sites). I was SO GOOD at learning the songs, and by the time I graduated high school I could sing the lyrics to a myriad of popular Spanish pop songs. But as I entered college and began my major in Music Education, I once again abandoned Spanish as something irrelevant to my future. Clearly, I have since become fluent in Spanish, despite poor academic preparation. This time, it was an unexpected involvement in a church missions trip that brought me back to Spanish…
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Cómo aprendí el español parte 3: “preparación” académica
Para resumir, ya sabemos que yo soy bilingüe, y en los últimos dos artículos he empezado a contar mi historia. En la primera parte, vimos que yo crecí en una comunidad y familia donde había muy pocos ejemplos de personas bilingües. En la segunda parte les conté del momento en que yo me di cuenta que mi prima Sofía, con sólo tres años, era bilingüe, y yo quería ser como ella. Apenas decidí que quería aprender el español, era sólo cuestión de averiguar cómo hacerlo.
El siguiente otoño, yo empecé la secundaria en el distrito Poudre Valley en mi pueblo natal de Fort Collins. Fort Collins era, y aún sigue siendo una comunidad bastante próspera, el cual significa también que las escuelas gozan de bastantes fondos económicos. Las oportunidades para escoger cursos extras son bastantes, y eso fue para mí un beneficio extra dado que me encantaba ir a clases y aprender (todavía de hecho me encanta aprender cosas nuevas). Durante mis primeros dos años de la secundaria, tuve la suerte de llevar cursos de educación física, educación para el hogar, música, y lo que se llamaban en ese entonces lenguajes extranjeros. Yo pude escoger entre alemán, francés o español, y por supuesto yo escogí español.
Mirando atrás, mi curso de español se puede describir como un caos total. Nuestra profesora casi nunca estaba en la clase dado a lo que ella llamaba una alergia a la tiza. Se negaba a volver a la escuela hasta que sacaran toda la tiza del edificio… algo que en ese entonces era imposible. Tuvimos varios profesores substitutos que eran sumamente irresponsables. Uno nos contaba acerca de sus viajes por América Latina y luego nos enseñaba palabras malas. Una de mis primeras palabras en español fue “mierda.” Otro de los profesores por lo menos se dedicaba a enseñarnos a conjugar verbos, el cual me interesaba mucho. Yo me senté en la primera fila del aula y apuntaba todo lo que él enseñaba, aunque lo que él decía no tenía absolutamente ningún sentido para mí. Con cada pregunta que yo le hacía, el profesor se enojaba más y más, hasta que por fin me dijo “escriba esto en su cuaderno y sacarás buenas notas.”
En el curso de español 2 no me fue mucho mejor. Nuestra profesora tenía muy buenas intenciones de enseñarnos bien, pero a ella le costaba mucho manejar la disciplina del aula. Recuerdo que nuestro grupo era casi todos varones, y ellos probaban casi cualquier táctica para interrumpir la lección del día. La mayor parte del tiempo tuvieron éxito, y no aprendimos nada. Nuestras tareas consistían en escribir de nuevo ejercicios básicos, y saqué casi un cien en el curso aún sin saber casi nada. Después de estudiar español por casi dos años, no pude hablar ni una palabra del idioma.
En mis últimos dos años del colegio, seguí tomando español, y tuve profesoras que realmente eran buenas. Aún así yo batallaba con el idioma porque no tenía ningún talento natural para aprenderlo. Para ese entonces mi prima Sofía había dejado de hablar español porque cuando ella entró en la escuela los compañeros la vieron como “diferente” el cual es un problema común con niños bilingües. Sigue el enlace aquí para leer más acerca del tema.
Yo no seguí con el estudio del español porque era buena con la materia, ni siquiera porque me gustaba. Seguí en el curso porque todos los viernes escuchábamos música popular en español. Después de aprender la letra cantábamos; tanto que al graduarme del colegio, yo podía cantar muchas canciones populares en español. Esa técnica de enseñar español me sirvió muchísimo en mi propio aula, y hay un ejemplo aquí de cómo hacerlo bien. Pero al salir del colegio y entrar a estudiar música en la universidad, otra vez dejé de estudiar español. Obviamente, yo ya sé español, a pesar de haber recibido una preparación académica sumamente mala. En esta ocasión, fue un viaje de trabajo comunal que hice con mi iglesia que me volvería al español…