“Poco a Poco”: Learning a Language

I have a confession to make. When I arrived in Spain, I rapidly became quite discouraged and disillusioned over the monumental difficulty of truly becoming fluent in a language and of then maintaining that fluency. The way that I solved this temptation to despair and sulk, moody and mute, during the remainder of my time in Spain (translation: do enough to get by in the classroom and spend time lots of time with American friends speaking English)? Well, I’m not sure that I’ve yet entirely overcome the temptation to indulge in frustration (we all have our days), but my mentality has become this: learning a language is a process. And I may never really speak like a native (the perfectionist in me wants to throw a tantrum at this one). But these realities should in no way preclude me from giving my all while I’m here, seeking to learn as much as I possibly can, to the glory of God (Colossians 3:23). And by His grace, progress I am making!

The 10th century castle I walk by on my way to classes each day. Love it!

But first…a dose of reality. You see, there is a gaping chasm, far larger than I could have imagined, between proficiency in the classroom and the mastery of a language. Certainly, one can learn a great deal in the classroom—I know I certainly have!—but this is simply not enough. Where, then, does one really begin to put the pieces together and to comprehend and speak like a native? Well, in the real world. Where everyone speaks Spanish. One thing I’ve noted, since arriving, is that, although my classes (thus far, anyway) don’t demand the same number of hours of study as do my courses at Erskine, simply living in Spain is in itself a challenge. I remember my friend Aimée’s mentioning this before I left Erskine, but I didn’t really understand what she meant until I arrived. This type of constant, 24-7 language learning is called immersion, as you doubtless know, and it is both exciting and exhausting.

Calle Mayor–a street I walk down daily

If, for example, you have a cold and need to purchase medicine, you will need to be able to converse with the pharmacist about various medications—in Spanish—before successfully making your purchase. When you go to church on Sunday mornings, the sermon, and the “small-talk” following the sermon will be both uplifting and, in addition, will require great concentration and will frequently involve several repetitions of “¿cómo?” (“what’s that?”) and awkward moments of partial-comprehension. If, on your fourth day in Spain, you get lost on your way to catch your bus to the university, numerous kind people will be only too happy to help you find you way again (the Spanish are, I’ve found, remarkably open and friendly)—but, of course, this will be helpful only if you can understand their extremely rapid Spanish. (Yes, this is my veiled way of admitting that, during my first week here, I often asked directions of multiple people before I was able to piece tog
ether a coherent picture of where exactly it was that I needed to go.) And when, after you’ve had a long day, you blithely head to a Bible study to be refreshed and renewed by Scripture and fellowship? Make sure you have a bilingual translation handy, or you may be utterly lost during the discussion of the passage. Not that that would ever happen to me, of course.

This is the wonderful Bible study group I’ve become part of since arriving in Spain. What a blessing!

Now that I have waxed prolix on the difficulties of learning a language, perhaps I ought to avoid seeming sardonicism by pointing out that, although I’ve had my moments of frustration while in Spain, many of the situations enumerated above are no longer a problem for me (hooray!). In fact, I’ve begun, of late, to be able to actually laugh and joke with Spanish friends (instead of stuttering stiltedly) and, in general, to communicate with far greater facility. And I’ve only been here for a matter of weeks! Perhaps I’m a bit impatient? It really is exciting to walk down the street and, upon hearing snatches of conversation, realize that I understand what’s going on. It’s also great fun to be able to talk with Spanish friends in an almost-normal way. (I would say normal…but I hardly thing that competency at chit-chat and basic conversation is impressive enough to term “normal”. Stay tuned for greater progress in week seven.) I’ve also been thrilled to find th
at, after years of attempting to “read” books in Spanish, I really can sit down now and work through the *cough* modest library I’ve begun collecting since arriving in Alicante. I’m currently reading a work of non-fiction on leadership and two novels—and my vocabulary base is now actually wide enough for me to follow the storylines! I may have something like a fourth-grade reading level, yes…but still. That is exciting.

And as my lovely host mom frequently reminded me during my first couple of weeks in Spain, fluency will come– poco a poco (little by little). As with most worthwhile things in life, it just takes time.

Tongue-tied: Being Humbled and Finding Grace

The following is a blog post that I wrote three weeks ago. I was a bit too sore to post it at the time (often, the lessons God teaches us are painful at first, but grow sweeter with time); but after reading it again today, I am greatly encouraged by how far I’ve come—ever by God’s grace!—in what feels like ages but has been, in fact, just three weeks. Part two of this blog post will be an update on where I am now in the language-learning process, for the patient reader who cares to continue. And now, my thoughts from September 19th:

With my friend Elizabeth--she speaks Italian and some English, and she was such a help to me during the retreat!

How profoundly humbling, and what a great blessing it is, to be shown love and grace by God’s people in another country. This weekend I went on a retreat to the mountains of Valencia with the youth group (which, in Spain, includes “youths” ranging approximately from the age of twelve to thirty) of the First Baptist Church of Alicante. What an experience! After having missed church for two consecutive weeks due to travel, I was so longing for the fellowship of believers. Of course, the weekend was complicated a bit by the oft-frustrating reality of a language barrier. (But don’t you speak Spanish, you may ask?) The humbling answer is that…although I understand my teachers in class and am able to communicate satisfactorily in the classroom setting, communicating with facility outside of the classroom is another feat entirely. In consequence, I found myself, frustratingly limited in my ability to communicate this weekend. My frustration was heightened, I think, by the
fact that I love words and language and therefore hardly knew what to do with myself when I was, in effect, bereft of the gift of rich, deep communication.

Paula and I. This girl has a Spanish father, a German mother, and is fluent in Spanish, English, and German at age thirteen. Wow.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I was able to have some incredible conversations with extremely patient, kind friends who helped me when I struggled to find the right words and who answered my endless questions about grammar and vocabulary. What a blessing that was! At the same time, the more I learn, and the more I improve…the more I realize how far I have to go. This weekend, for example, I discovered that a number of the words and uses of words which I’ve learned in textbooks over the years are not at all used in the same way in real life…at least not in Spain, where a particular variation of Spanish is spoken. To be reminded that books cannot teach me everything was, again, very humbling for an inveterate bibliophile such as myself. In addition, to feel almost mute at times because of my limited vocabulary or because of the difficulty of thinking quickly in Spanish, was profoundly humbling. But what a testimony and example the believers in the group were to me through t
he way in which they welcomed me, cared for me, and loved me, even as I stumbled over the beautiful words of their language.

The delightful group of people who went on the retreat--what fun it was and continues to be to get to know them!

My experience this weekend, and in Spain in general, has helped me realize how incredibly isolated I’ve been when it comes to languages. Yes, of course I’ve taken a foreign language in school ever since middle school. Even so, learning vocabulary and grammar in class is so very different from “living a language”, as my director puts it. I’m beginning to realize how very much I will have to learn outside of the classroom if I’m ever going to have a fair command of the Spanish language. Which is, of course, why I’m in Spain—it’s far more exciting and compelling to learn a language when speaking it well is a necessity for daily living and communication!

Providing our Services

For those of you who have followed my blog previously, this will not be news to you. However, for you newcomers, you will soon learn that I am a proud member of the Athenian Literary Society. Here at Erskine, we do not have Sororities and Fraternities. Rather, we have Literary Societies which are unique to Erskine. These organizations operate similarly to the Greek life of other schools with the same emphasis on sisterhood/brotherhood and service. However, at Erskine, they are much less expensive and exclusive.

The Athenian Literary Society, home to over twenty Erskine women, serves the campus and the community through several aspects, including Breast Cancer awareness and fundraising, Relay for Life involvement, and other activities that vary from year to year. Last night, I had the opportunity to serve with some of my sisters at the local retirement home in Due West. The event coordinator had planned a special dinner for the residents themed a Dinner in New York which involved dancing, singing, and music. We were able to assist by providing waitressing services to serve these wonderful members of the community. Speaking with these wise and inspirational men and women proved to be a wonderful and fulfilling experience.

Even to those not involved in a Literary Society, Erskine offers several opportunities to serve in various capacities. Our small Christian school places much emphasis on the quality of service and is in the process of exploring even more and new ways to involve the students. If you are looking for a school which fosters growth through community and service, Erskine just might be the place for you!

A Little Excitement

My little friend in his chrysalis, waiting until Spring.

Have you ever seen a caterpillar make its cocoon?  It may sound suspiciously like a second grader to be so excited, but a couple of weeks ago I got to watch one do so, and I am now the proud guardian of a newly formed chrysalis.  From what a few biology-inclined students have told me (plus a little bit of poking around on the internet) this little guy won’t come out until spring, so until then I will have him sitting on my windowsill.

The story of how I got ended up with the chrysalis is blog-worthy, so I decided to share – plus, I wanted to share my excitement.  As is increasingly common knowledge around people I know at Erskine, I have a bug collection of about 40 specimens, including moths and butterflies, beetles, assassin bugs, spiders, cicadas, dragonflies, and anything else that we find and decide is worthy to be displayed.  So, when one of my friends found a big green caterpillar outside, she decided to bring it in for me to appreciate.

My roommate is an early childhood education major, and her students were learning about insects in science, so I offered to keep it for about a week so that she could bring it in to show them.  However, the next evening as I went to feed it some leaves, I noticed that was moving around in a funny way, and the more I looked I realized that it was making a chrysalis!  Long story short, it finished making its little nest in about a day and now it is sitting in the jar, slowly changing into a moth.  I am looking forward to bring it outside in the spring and watch it come out and fly away.

Ah, the little things in life.

Cooking Adventures

One of my favorite ways to spend time with friends at Erskine is making a meal.  Although going out to get food is also enjoyable, there is just nothing like spending a couple of hours in a dorm kitchen making dinner, or even just something sweet for an evening snack.  This weekend I did this twice, first with dessert and then dinner.

My tasty final product - Tarta de Santiago.

Friday evening, after our dinners had settled, I made a Spanish cake with some friends.  La tarta de Santiago originated in the northwest of Spain, in the province of Galicia.  The capital of this province is Santiago de Compostela, location of tomb of St. James and also named for him, and one of the first cities that I visited while living in Spain.  While we explored the streets, there were tons of pastelerías selling, among other things, these tasty cakes.  They are sweet almond cakes topped with confectioners sugar, traditionally sprinkled around a cut-out of the St. James Cross.

The cake turned out very well, despite being unable to find pre-ground almonds in the store, and grinding them all ourselves!  Unfortunately, our next project on Saturday night did not turn out so well, leading to lots of adventures.

Last night we attempted to make a tortilla de patata, a delicious egg, potato, and vegetable dish commonly used in picnics in Spain.  I was excited for another delicious Spanish dish, and everything went well at the beginning: peeling, dicing, and partially cooking the vegetables, whipping the eggs. . . until we got to cooking the entire thing.  After combining the vegetables and eggs, we put it all in a skillet, and started frying.  Shortly, we knew something was going wrong.

Although the eggs were setting properly, there was a mysterious steam coming from the bottom of the pan, but since it didn’t smell like anything was burning we let it continue and hoped for the best.  Bad idea.  Turns out the oil did not do its job, and the eggs on the bottom were sticking (and starting to burn) to the bottom of the pan, so when we went to flip over the tortilla a bunch of the vegetables on top came off onto the pan and the eggs stayed!

Long story short, it turned out to be a mess of eggs, potatoes, onion, and tomato that was more like an omelet than my beloved Spanish dish.  After several minutes of fiasco trying to save the dish, several students and our resident director coming in to make sure we hadn’t started a fire, we ate the misshapen dish, finishing the meal off with some of the leftover cake from the day before (at least the dessert turned out well!).  Despite the small calamity, it was a fun two evenings of cooking and fellowship, and it sure makes a good story.