Mucha paciencia needed to learn a language

Published 10:09 am Saturday, August 28, 2010

Books have always allowed me to travel. Growing up in a working class family didn’t afford me with the opportunity to vacation much farther away than Milwaukee or Chicago, but with books, I could go anywhere.

By the time I was 12, I had traveled to Europe through the eyes of young Holocaust survivors, to New York City in an attempt to discover “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” and to the “Little House in the Big Woods” with a family of pioneers. Those vacations were products of the written word and my imagination only.

Amanda Lester

And it was a book that led me to Peru for six weeks this summer.

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Last fall, I read “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Basically, this books calls on its readers to take action: volunteer with or donate to causes that help improve the lives of women. The authors point out that when women are given political and economic power, the society in which they live improves.

Using this book as a guide, I found a volunteer organization with a project working specifically with girls in Peru, and I signed up to go for six weeks in June and July. My husband and I do not have children, and we are both teachers; these factors give us many freedoms during the summer

I was well aware that working in a foreign country with children would be a valuable experience for me as an educator, and I hoped my time spent there would be valuable for the girls. I did not know, however, that as I worked to learn Spanish, I would learn a lesson about how patience is related to the acquisition of a second language.

Quickly, I discovered how difficult and time consuming it is to learn a second language. I had the luxury of studying Spanish with a one-on-one tutor for four hours a day. When I went home to my host family, I worked so hard to understand them and communicate with them. It was such a relief to meet people who spoke English because my brain was exhausted, but then, I would realize that I had lost words in English. My adjectives were limited to those I knew in English and Spanish: good, nice, pretty, bad, important, tall, easy, difficult, short or ugly.

There were times when I wanted so badly to try to say something to a stranger, but by the time my mind translated from English to Spanish, the moment had passed. Or, when I was so afraid to say something incorrectly (I quickly discovered that my thick Upper Midwestern accent, with its hard Rs and long Os, does not easily transition to the Spanish language) and be laughed at or misunderstood that I didn’t even bother. I quickly learned the go-to phrases for a traveler (How much does this cost? Where is the bathroom? Does this bus go to Mariscal Gamarra?) and responded to most questions with si, gracias or no hablo mucho Español.

The positive encouragement I received from the Peruvian people slowly convinced me that I was in a welcoming and safe environment. It really didn’t bother them if I made mistakes or sounded silly. They were glad to help me speak better Spanish. They didn’t look down on me for daring to come to their country without a basic knowledge of the language they are so proud to speak. When they couldn’t understand me, or I couldn’t understand them, the patience and compassion they shared was extraordinary. Countless times, a native Spanish speaker would tell me that my Spanish was good, taxi drivers would rephrase questions when I couldn’t understand them, and my host family and instructor would comment daily on the improvements I was making.

Reflecting on this experience, it becomes clear to me that the patience of my Spanish instructor, host family and the Peruvian people is why I was able to learn as much Spanish as I did in those six weeks. Patience is why I became comfortable enough to make mistakes.

It is why I made attempts to put words together that I had not memorized from a phrase book and why my accent stopped being a roadblock.

There are many things native English speakers can do to reduce the anxiety, and thus increase English language acquisition, for those in our community working to learn English. We can speak slowly, not louder. Take a moment to show empathy and compassion and to recognize the time it takes to master a second language. If one were to have extra time, call Diane Hill at Adult Basic Education (379-4866) and volunteer for one hour a week tutoring an adult learning English.

But, most importantly, be patient.Learning a second language is no easy task.

Amanda Lester lives in Albert Lea and is a teacher at Lakeview Elementary School.