Once a teacher, always a teacher and as such I am always curious about learning. So this adventure is letting me really look closely at my own learning. Overall, I’m getting some huge lessons.
The biggest is of course around learning, or perhaps not learning to speak Spanish. For almost four years now I’ve been trying hard to learn some basic Spanish: I’ve attended night school four times through Vancouver School Board-level one successfully two times and half way through level two twice; I’ve done a week of Spanish class in beautiful Yelapa, Mexico, a small village a forty minute water taxi ride away from Puerto Vallarta and I’ve made three other trips to Mexico seeking some kind of immersion experience; I’ve listened to hours of podcasts including Coffee Break Spanish, Showtime Spanish and most recently Michelle Thomas’ excellent series for beginning spanish; and I’ve even worked my way through several exercise books and a couple of very, very beginning novels. While I’ve come a long way, I am far, far from fluent. At least now I usually know when someone is speaking spanish to me and in all honesty, I can understand more and more of what I’m hearing around me.
Today though I’m having a bad spanish day. At the market in Calvia, when I was trying to park the car an older spanish woman cut me off, literally stealing the parking space that I’d waited patiently for by pulling up in the lot to block my entrance to it. While I politely reversed the car so she could pass me by as I thought we clearly had an understanding that the spot was mine-the driver pulling out had even told her that I was taking the spot-she then had the gaul to pull into the spot while yelling at me, in spanish, that she’d been driving around for twenty minutes waiting for a spot, as if that entitled her to so rudely do what she did. I pulled up to her window dumbfounded, with a stupid idiotic look on my face I’m sure, while she hurtled explanations at me as to how tired of waiting she was and that she was entitled to the spot after viente minutos. I understood pretty much all of what she was saying but my active spanish vocabulary vanished completely and all I could think to yell back was “puta!” (Oh what a dishonorable person I am!) So how did I learn such language in the first place you might wonder? Well apparently swearing is quite the past time here. Robert and Hannah have both been learning to swear up a storm while I thought I was above it all. We hear it on the buses around us, from the people at the side of the soccer field, pretty much everywhere, little children, teenagers and adults alike. Last week when I asked Hannah how she was doing with speaking spanish on the soccer field con las otras jugadoras she told me very proudly that she was doing really well. She’d sworn twice at the mosquitos on the field.
But honestly, what I am learning beyond the language itself is about the learning of a language. Learning a language is really, really hard work and immersion doesn’t happen naturally. It is far too easy for me to sit at home in the comfort of my family, and to rely on the very few english speaking people, including my family here, to speak and translate for me. I have experienced too the huge feeling of helplessness that comes from not being able to speak the language, a helplessness that for me actually makes it even harder to learn. I watch myself going into “shut down mode” when I don’t understand what to do or how to find what I need. I see myself withdrawing and choosing not to participate in the community rather than seeking help and pushing myself harder to try to overcome the language that I don’t understand. So for example in our trying to deal with “officialdom” here I feel so lost. It took us a whole week just to find out if there was a soccer team that Hannah could play on. Then we needed help finding the field where they practice. Now we’re struggling through some kind of registration process that we just don’t understand. We’ve pretty much given up on finding any sort of schooling experience for her outside of the VLN program that she is registered in from home. Our next step is to try to find spanish language classes for all three of us but even that is hard to do. It is hard to sort out what is tourist hype and what might be real. It would be easier to just stay on my beautiful deck, keep swimming daily to the island across the bay until the weather gets too cold, continue to play on my computer and forget spanish all together. Keeping at it is tough going.
In short, this is giving me a whole new perspective on all of the amazing parents I’ve dealt with over the years who have moved to Vancouver despite not knowing the language, and really truly persisted to get their children into good programs and to learn the language themselves enough to actively participate in the school at any level. To those of you reading this who are teaching and working with ESL parents in your schools right now, please reach out and find one parent or one student who is trying to understand but may be feeling frustrated. Please, even for a day, give them all the help you can. You will make a world of difference.