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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Crossing Borders - Part I - the Early Years

Tonight I was just "bloggin' around" and over at Transcental Musings , she mentioned wanting to learn Spanish.

I offered that languages really can't be learned solo; they require interaction.

The opportunity to learn Spanish was not presented to me until 9th Grade. At the end of eighth grade, I knew what my two 9th grade electives would be: Band (I played flute, and I rivaled 1st Chair), and Spanish. And then the plot thickened; Mr. Kane, the Art teacher pulled me aside one day to encourage me to take Art as my elective. He saw talent in my work, really thought I needed to continue on. I told him that I was taking Spanish, and I had to continue with music. He did not try to talk me out of music; after all, it is an art. He really pressured me to put off Spanish and take Art while I could. I turned him down, having made my decision. I was flattered that he was so insistent, yet there was no question in my mind that I needed to study Spanish. Had I had my way, I would have taken all 3 electives; but that was not an option. (And I think of some wasted time, such as in "reading comprehension, that I could have tested out of on day 1) * sigh *

So it was that my route to Mexico began in a Jr. High school in Southern Minnesota. I had no idea where it would lead; most who begin studying any given language don't last long. So it was. I think we did have a 2-year language requirement. As it was, my Spanish class Senior Year had only 11 survivors, and our teacher was a terrorist. That's why we loved him so much. He had a gruff exterior, he expected the best of us, and he will never be portrayed on TV because he was politically incorrect. He used sarcasm that sometimes crossed a line, but those who hung on saw his true intent. I remember agonizing each year...should I continue? Not only was he my Spanish teacher, but I'd been unlucky enough to be assigned to his homeroom!

But I continued, and even returned during college to speak to the Spanish classes about college, and about Mexico.

Ah...Mexico. One of the reasons I chose my college (now University) was the study abroad opportunities. I grew up in a very poor family...we were on welfare for most of my life. So quite literally, I'd never been ANYWHERE. Ok...once we visited the corn palace in South Dakota. And my grandparents in Escanaba, MI, where I fished off the pier with my Dad. While I wanted to go and hoped, I didn't think I'd be able to, and really had given up. But suddenly, something took hold of me, and "told" me I "HAD" to go to I applied, and I didn't even have to go through the process. The Prof. who happened to be the stateside contact for this trip, and the main advocate was also my academic advisor. I walked into his office. He grabbed my flie, but didn't even look at it. "You're going."

There was no interview necessary. This Prof. knew his students.

So it was that, me, a poverty-stricken girl from the midwest, found herself on a plane to Mexico City...having studied Spanish for 6 years.

My first 4 years consisted of the year of foundation, and then three years of Hell. The High School teacher (Mr. Engrav) was SUPERB and taught mainly in Spanish by the 4th year. But it fell off in college. I did not try to test out, on his recommendation, for his opinion of college Spanish was that it moved to quickly for most students and we'd be lost. His students who had tried to test out sometimes found themselves in over their heads. So I took his advice and just signed up for the recommend College Spanish for those of us who had had 4-5 years.

Unfortunately, both Profs at my college were really not up to Mr. Engrav's standards. One had studied in Chile for awhile, but I didn't have him as an instructor. The one I did happen to sit in front of was a highly intelligent man. He was from the Ukraine, spoke six languages, one of them was Spanish, and he'd never studied actively in a Spanish-speaking country. (That was my understanding. One of my readers may be able to correct this.) And he spoke Spanish with a Ukranian accent. None of that was really an issue. What WAS an issue was the canned Spanish provided. I had come from a high-school Spanish class that used real-world resources. Our teacher had a stack of Spanish-language newspapers and newspaper clips. We were given our lessons for the day, but once a week or so had to take an article from the paper of our choice, read it, and present it to the class. If a word was used that had not previously been used in class, we had first to define that word. That was a typical exercise. And our grammar had to be perfect, we had to have accents in the right place, etc etc.

So college was a shock; not because it was too hard; because it was too EASY. The first year was such cake I, and another student from another school who was likewise well prepared, never studied. We both realized we should have tested out...but we were stuck as the deadline had passed. So we didn't study; we didn't need to. We came to class, having glanced over the book that was used...and we answered each question as it came to us. Even the prof realized we hadn't done our homework. We did occassionally mess up, granted, but both of us took easy "A's". It is fair to say I actually didn't learn anything that year, because it was all elementary to me. That bred bad habits.

By 2nd year College Spanish...well, our learned laziness caught up. My friend and I had "unlearned" what we'd been taught by our high school teachers, and so our Spanish study skills were not really up to par that year. We did both begin studying again, and while it wasn't hard, we'd set a standard for ourselves, and when we did hit difficulties, we were called out for it. The first 2nd year spanish semester wasn't too really caught up 2nd semester of our Sophomore year.

So we were pulled aside a couple tmes. The book didn't always make sense, so at times, for all of us, the lesson was incomplete. We literally would go into class, sit down at a conference table, and by rote, go over the lessons in a book. There were no real lectures. And our professor often had to question the lessons in the book; they didn't make any sense to him, either, what was being asked.

I ask you...if the Professor doesn't know what's going can the students possibly learn anything?

So he would occasionally pull the two of us out of class, and give us the lecture he'd had to give (as an example) the first year, but now it was serious. "You have to do your work outside of class."

I always wanted to ask him, "Why? You don't. You don't know what the book is asking, either. How do we know if we're 'learning' anything correctly?" And truth be told, even 2nd year, if I looked over the lesson and it was obvious, I wouldn't waste time doing it, which did lead to some errors. But our Prof liked his star students...when we looked good, he looked good. That's the reality of education, for some Profs.

I have to say I learned very little from him by way of the actual Spanish language.

So by the time I left for Mexico, my Junior year of College, I'd had 6 years of Spanish...but really, only 4 of them constituted any real learning, and I'd actually backslid by way of taking College Spanish.

{ to be continued.... next stop....MEXICO! )

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