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Tuning In To Spanish

I finally learned to speak Spanish after it dawned on me that I was constantly surrounded by the living language. All I had to do was tune in.

I, like many Americans, was introduced to Spanish at exactly the wrong age and in exactly the wrong way. I was 12 years old and in junior high: too late for the unselfconscious and infinitely flexible sponge-brain of a child, but too early for me to make the decision to pursue it on my own with the (relative) self-confidence of an adult. It was adolescence, that most awkward and self-conscious of all ages, and this was one more subject forced on me against my will. We didn’t speak Spanish in class; we "had Spanish" – memorizing (and quickly forgetting) vocabulary lists and conjugation tables, cramming and regurgitating, taking tests and quizzes.

Never mind that this was Los Angeles, CA – home to the country’s largest Spanish-speaking population – where, at that very moment beyond the classroom walls, hundreds of thousands of native Spanish speakers were going about their daily lives, speaking and living in Spanish. But there was our teacher, reading out of a book and scrawling on a whiteboard, and there we were – confined to our pupitres (school desks) – learning words for objects in the classroom, the one place that none of us wanted to be.

Bad first impressions and bad habits

The sad thing is that most of us never recover from our initial impression of what it means to learn a foreign language. We write ourselves off, saying either that we can’t ­– that it’s too difficult – or that we’re not interested. I was a lucky exception, but I was well into my twenties before I discovered the beauty of language learning. It started at college and flourished while I was living abroad in Europe. It was there that I discovered that, while conjugation tables and lists of vocabulary are useful tools, they mean nothing if you don’t get out and speak the language! And that’s what no one told us in junior high or high school. Language learning was presented to us in the form of a series of lessons which dictated predetermined categories (e.g. classroom objects, kitchen utensils, nocturnal animals, etc.). But language has to be connected to life! You have to create your own categories as you go – ones that reflect your experience. In the course of a day, you may have to go to the market, where you’ll learn the words for paprika and leek, and on the way out you may glance at a newspaper headline and realize that it’s talking about a "bailout fund," and on the way home you may even learn a new insult when you cut someone off with your bike. That’s how a language comes to life! But even as my German and French increasingly came to life, my Spanish was still stuck back in that pupitre in high school. I felt like I should be able to speak it – wasn’t I from Los Angeles after all? – and was embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t.

When I moved back to my home city, I was determined to finally learn Spanish the right way, to claim what I felt to be my birthright as a native Angelino. This time I knew how to go about it: I wasn’t going to be confined to a classroom with my pencils and binders while the Spanish-speaking world passed me by outside – I was going to get out there and speak it! The problem was that as soon as I got home, I immediately fell into my routines. I saw my friends and family, I went to work and I went out, I read, wrote, watched and listened – but all in English. This was, after all, not a foreign country. According to U.S. Census data, Spanish is the city’s most spoken language, but English still dominates the landscape. And my world was still the mainstream English-speaking one. I realized that I could not "move to" being Latino in Los Angeles in the same way that I could move to Mexico or Colombia. The mere presence of Spanish was not going to give me anything but fleeting opportunities to practice, let alone make me fluent. Unlike living abroad, circumstances would not present me with the opportunity to speak a foreign language throughout the course of my day. This time the desire was there! But it wasn’t enough. I needed a strategy.

Seeing the familiar through a new lens

This first occurred to me in unspectacular fashion when I called my bank one day. I was waiting to be directed by the automated welcome message when I heard something that we’ve all heard and ignored our entire lives, "Para español, oprima dos" (“for Spanish, press two”). The parallel nature of the Spanish-speaking world struck me at that moment. It’s always just the press of a button away, but easy to overlook. We speak English, so why would we press two for Spanish? But why not?

I began to tap into the parallel universe every chance I got. When I got into my car I would listen to Spanish radio instead of English radio. All I had to do was turn the dial! I would close my eyes and listen to conversations on the bus. That’s right, eavesdropping – but we do it in English anyway, so why not at least be multicultural eavesdroppers? I started reading LA’s Spanish language newspaper La Opinion and watching the news on Univision and CNN Español. I even read the lists of ingredients in Spanish in the supermarket, the Spanish translations of instruction manuals and the Spanish advertisements on the subway. It’s not the equivalent of living in a foreign country, but it offers one significant advantage when it comes to language learning: rather than learning about a foreign culture, you are often learning about your OWN culture through a different lens. You have much of the context already, all you need is the vocabulary!

Breaking the ice

Taking the step from reading and listening to speaking was admittedly a big one. Striking up conversations can be very daunting. But the more I read and listened to Spanish on a daily basis, the less out-of-place I felt when I could finally bring myself to speak it. I realized that I couldn’t just approach strangers and strike up a conversation with my textbook Spanish: "Hola, me llamo Brandon, and I’d like to point out a few nearby objects to you if I may." I decided to come up with a series of icebreaker questions in Spanish for different situations. When I went into restaurants or shops, I would ask the owners how long they they’d been running their businesses. I would ask cooks what ingredients they use. On the bus I would ask people where to get off for a certain transfer (even if I already knew). I’ve even (somewhat embarrassingly) resorted to the old standby, “how ‘bout that weather?” Whatever – the important thing was to speak! To feel it come out of my mouth and go into the ears of others, to have something come out of their mouths and into my ears. Then it’s a language and not a conjugation table. The best part is that I’ve encountered overwhelmingly positive reactions, and a general willingness on the part of native Spanish speakers to “let me into the club.” And every time I did it, no matter how short or trivial the interaction, the more confidence I gained for the next interaction and the more I felt like I had access to the parallel world.

For those of us who didn’t grow up speaking it, Spanish in the United States is a choice that no one will compel us to make. But the parallel universe is always right there, and you can enter anytime you want! The only requirement is desire on your part. Once you’ve got that, all you have to do is press two.

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