Laura Keatonguatemala 2010

Learning the Language Published on December 30, 2009

Several days ago I had one of those sudden moments of insight into the workings of my mind that shocked me and excited me at the same time. I was with Fina and her sister Irma, recounting the tale of the neck-walking “grio” (that would be a HUGE brown grasshopper, bigger than my thumb, and yes the neck upon which it did the walking would be mine, horror) and I suddenly realized that I felt a little bit uncertain about the words I was using. They were nodding along and laughing, and I knew that the words were right but it took me a minute to realize that they felt strange because I wasn’t speaking English in my head and finding the Spanish equivalent, I was picturing specific actions in my head associated with a Spanish word. I felt uncertain because I didn’t even KNOW what English word I would have been trying to say.Lear

I really thought “Wow, this is what immersion does to you. This is what learning a second-language should be.” It has been occurring to me more and more often that learning a second language is not simply learning the vocabulary and translating in your head–it’s ugly, and it doesn’t flow naturally, doesn’t really flow at all. It is associating feelings and actions in your head with words and constructs. The tricky thing for me to overcome has been that if I wanted to learn this language the natural way– like a little kid, repeating everything he heard– I would no doubt embarrass myself soundly on a regular basis. Thus I always wanted to know EXACTLY what I was saying, and for me this meant knowing the English equivalent. As I’ve found, it’s easy to hear a phrase or word used many times, simply ask about it, and then use it. There’s not too much opportunity for embarrassment if you simply pay attention.

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