Saturday, September 15, 2007

linguistic epiphany!

I started my new job at the library in earnest this week--the grant that funds the Reading Buddies program was finally approved (later than the official notification date)--and have been running around recruiting participants and teen volunteers, updating brochures, revising the training manual, making plans, learning my way around computer programs that are new to me, and so on. (I have to ask lots of questions about things that seem so basic--where they keep the phone book, how to make the photocopier do what I want, how to check my own voicemail, etc. This is my first new workplace in nine years! I don't like feeling lost and inept. Fortunately those unpleasant feelings are already starting to recede.) Our first Reading Buddies meeting is Monday already, and I've only managed to recruit and train two teen volunteers to work with the ten elementary school students (they're supposed to be paired one-to-one)! But I'll keep looking and I think we'll be all right.

Anyway, what I wanted to post about today is an unexpected work-related conversation I had in Spanish. I took two semesters of Spanish in 1991, and then a Spanish review class about five years ago. (Katie was my teacher!) I also shared an office for a few years with native speakers who often conversed in Spanish among themselves. So the combination of the formal classes, the exposure from my colleagues, and the similarities between French and Spanish means that my knowledge of the language is better than most people who have only had a year of Spanish class.

But I've done almost nothing with Spanish in the meantime, even though I have good friends who are Spanish teachers and/or native speakers. Katie and Estela both offered to help me brush up my Spanish, but I never took them up on it. I've never spent time with the books I've bought in the meantime (simple stories, vocabulary lessons via comic strips, etc.). I don't listen to Spanish-language radio or watch movies in Spanish.

So just imagine the panic I felt when I called a parent on the waiting list (she wanted to enroll her child in the Big Buddies program) and discovered that she spoke very little English! But I actually managed to carry on an entire conversation--on the phone, which means no help from visual cues like facial expressions and gestures--and tell her who I was, when the program starts, and how to sign up. (Okay, for the latter I had to say "come to the library and write your son's name" because I had no idea what "register" or "sign up" was, but I think--I think!--she got the idea.)

It was exhilarating. This is why we learn other languages--not to conjugate verbs on tests, but to communicate about real things, in this case something that will help a child become a better reader!

It was also exhilarating to push past my insecurities about my pronunciation and lack of precise vocabulary in Spanish and just get the ideas out, although imperfectly. I wish that all of my former students from my French classes could have opportunities like this to challenge themselves, to realize that they can make themselves understood after all, that feeling too shy or embarrassed to speak French means missing out on a chance to share real ideas and exchange meaningful information.


  1. PS: I talked with some of the other adult volunteers at the library's Homework Center today; we're going to try to form a Spanish conversation group to practice among ourselves!

  2. Wow .. the conversation group is really a chance to keep up with your Spanish!