Hello dear readers! It’s hard to believe that it’s already November, and that I only arrived in Chile last January. I feel I’ve lived a lifetime in the past ten months. And so I feel it’s time for another quick update on my adventures in (Chilean) Spanish.
When I reflect on my current approach, I doubt that any Spanish teacher would approve of how I’m learning Spanish. But I don’t care. Just like in my academic research, I have found the path to fluency (for me) is messy, goes forward only to go backwards, takes detours and follows no set path. The things emphasized by my Spanish teachers (rote memorization and perfecting two tenses – present and past) get me absolutely nowhere in my interactions with real people. I find myself skipping ahead to “advanced” Spanish just to understand basic sentences. I also find myself obsessing over phrases – those things that we use all the time but do not translate literally. The best teacher of all still proves to be the people all around me. Just being here, surrounded by Spanish, encourages me to try, try and try again, no matter how I struggle.
One of the more “advanced” things I’ve decided I need to learn is “haber” (one form of “to have”). Haber is used in the perfect tenses (does anyone remember this from 8th grade grammar??) such as “I have been”; “we have had” and “you had had”. I do not know when a traditional Spanish class would introduce “haber”. I assume it is not taught for several years, since its conjugation is all the way at the bottom on SpanishDict.com (my go-to source for EVERYTHING Spanish – even Chilean slang!!).
Yet think how often we use the perfect tense in English. Could you carry on a basic conversation without understanding, “Have you ever been there?” Impossible. So I skipped ahead to the “advanced” stuff. Now I find I can at least recognize when people are using “haber”. It makes it much more possible to follow conversations (still my most difficult challenge).
I am also obsessed with phrases – “You’re right”; “That makes sense”; “That has nothing to do with it” or “That has everything to do with it”; “Do you want that (food) to go/to stay?”; even “No worries”. These are just the beginning of seemingly innumerable phrases that do not translate directly into Spanish, yet form the basis for our daily language. My Spanish Netflix shows are most helpful here. I watch with both Spanish and English subtitles. When I notice a phrase that doesn’t directly translate, I often go back and repeat the scene with English subtitles. I love learning a new phrase and then taking it out for practice in the real world. The responses always show appreciation for what I’ve learned.
This is easy to understand. Whenever I happen to hear a non-native English speaker use American phrases and/or slang, I always smile in appreciation. It’s like they are really getting a feel for the language. I can imagine the same is true of Spanish.
And the best way to learn is to practice, even if it’s just a little bit, each day. I’m in a wonderful spot for it. This is one my favorite things to do in Chile, especially when I meet people with whom I can practice my Spanish. Crisitan and I met back in September. He just started to learn English this year, and was as interested in practicing English as I was in practicing Spanish. His English is slightly better than my Spanish (and he can understand more, so that helps a lot) so it works out really well. We often go back and forth, explaining little things to each other about the language and practicing phrases on each other. It’s great fun, and I do not feel as self-conscious with him as I do with others.
Most people I have met either speak really good English or no English at all. In conversation, I struggle to hear, to understand, to think of how to respond, and then translate it into Spanish (in my head). This whole process takes 5-10 seconds, and this feels like an interminably long time in a regular conversation. The people who speak great English usually just switch to English at this point (which doesn’t help me learn, but I can totally understand). The ones who do not speak English are extraordinarily patient and understanding. This really helps me practice my Spanish, but they will rarely correct me or help with what I’m trying to say. In either instance, I feel incredibly self-conscious the whole time. Why? I feel that I’m usually so good with words (well, at least I tell myself that) that to struggle with expressing myself is frustrating and embarrassing.
It’s been really nice to meet someone similarly dedicated to learning a new language. We encourage each other. He is always telling me, “Take your time” when it’s obvious I’m searching for the words to say. And I urge him to “finish the sentence”, when he’s not sure what verb to use. I feel more comfortable pushing back and saying, “Let me try” if he switches to English. I feel like I have found a partner in this language learning adventure. And just like having a workout partner is great for consistency, support and growth, I think knowing someone else who is also learning a language is great for consistency, support and growth.
So I continue to improve. I am interminably hard on myself. It’s amazing how far I’ve come, how much I now find easy and how I can only see the ways in which I struggle. But I have a goal! When I return to the U.S. in February, I want to be able to have a conversation (10-15 minutes) with my dear friends, Marta and Wil. I feel I’m ready for a breakthrough, and am determined to get there. I’ve got a little more than three months, so plenty of time. J I’ll keep you apprised of my progress. Until next time! (the below is the view from my room – spring is here and I love it!)