Tuesday, April 13, 2010

El español

          At this point in our mission to Guatemala, about thirty-two months ago, I wrote a piece about our learning Spanish, with some 'tongue-in-cheek' stuff about the Gift of Tongues.  The progress to that point had been slow, and it continued at a sometimes discouraging snail's pace throughout the mission.  I ultimatey came to realize that for most of us the Gift of Tongues is granted gradually, contingent upon our actively working for it.  By daily study, as well as through the 'immersion' we had in Chiquimula, we could understand and speak it somewhat better by the end of our time there.

          We continued our almost-daily study of Spanish during the fourteen months we were at home.  In October-November, 2009, we returned to Chiquimula, Guatemala.  I was practically speechless for the first three days, and then it began to kick in.  For me, that return visit was a wakeup call and I knew then that I had to shift gears with my studying.  Within our first week here in Chile I realized that my Spanish had indeed gone to a higher level.  I still have a long way to go, however.

          Some comparisons:  In Guatemala we were surrounded most of the time by people who spoke no English.  However, much of our talking with them was social chit-chat, or classroom instruction in English, wherein the Spanish didn't have to be precise.  In other words, 'spanglish' and sign language frequently helped out.  Here our socializing is mostly done with other norteamericanos, in English.  A large part of the work, however, is done among Latino elders and hermanas who don't speak English and often have a companion who doesn't either.  The necessity of having a clear understanding, in dealing with their medical problems, demands more accurate use of the language.  That imperative, coupled with the need to do so much of the work over the phone, has a way of greasing the learning curve.  Talking on the phone in Spanish has always been the most difficult challenge for me, but now I have no choice but to become better at listening and understanding.

          I believe that with the effort I made to learn and apply in the past, plus the passage of time, the language's words, phrases, idioms, etc., became somewhat more 'solidified'  in my mind through a subconscious process.  Maybe this happens like 'sleep learning', or maybe it occurs by the memory transferring information from the 'recent' file to the 'long term' one.  What I experienced was that once I needed to use it in earnest again, it flowed more easily; whereas before it had been hard to string sentences together, now it comes more easily.  Now that I am actively retrieving previously-learned Spanish much of each day, I also have at least one dream almost every night in which I am speaking to others in Spanish.  Suzanne says that although ahe doesn't think she dreams in Spanish, she finds herself thinking in Spanish about half of the time.  We both are far from our goal of semi-fluency, but we are encouraged by our progress, having done all of this after retirement.  Is the Gift of Tongues operative in our cases?  I think so.

          Our son-in-law Brock put us onto a couple of articles in Meridian Magazine written by Janice Kapp Perry.  She and her husband served as senior missionaries in Chile a few years back.  For her it was the first time really using Spanish.  Sister Perry tells of some of the struggles and discouragements she experienced in the early part of her mission, despite nine weeks of language training in the MTC followed by assiduous daily study after their arrival in Chile.  She finally realized that progress comes steadily, albeit slowly, and that she wasn't alone with her frustrations in trying to learn a language at a mature age.  Sister Perry quotes Dr. Ted Lyon - retired professor of Spanish and current president of the Santiago Temple - as saying that studies done at BYU showed that it takes four to five times longer for a senior missionary to achieve proficiency in a new language than it does for a nineteen year-old.  She also quotes Elder Richard G. Scott, of the Twelve, as having said that it takes a senior ten years to achieve fluency in a new language.  Suzanne and I are only three years - earnestly - into that quest.

          Another thing that I am retrieving from deep down is my medical vocabulary and the rest of my medical knowledge.  Dealing with patients and their medical problems every day, after eight years away from clinical practice, has required reaching way back into memory.  It is there though, thank goodness.  That medical knowledge took more than seven years to aquire, working at it all day nearly every day.  I remember one day during my third year of medical school, an elevator encounter with a physician who was a fellow in hematology/oncology.  He asked me how school was going and I told him it was great.  He said:  "The daily increment of knowledge is d___ small, though, isn't it?"  I agreed that it was.  Yet, I did master it.  I realize now that this is how learning Spanish is for me.  Day by day it is hard to see much change.  Compared to three years ago, however, there has been major improvement.

          I have a feeling of  accomplishment from gaining on this language.  We've all heard it said that as we age, our brains need to have excercises such as memorization and and calculations in order to keep our mental powers from slipping away too fast.  I think that this serves that purpose for me.  I enjoy improving my Spanish, so that's a plus.

          Since the start of this mission we continue to study our Spanish books each night, read the scriptures in Spanish, pray in Spanish, use a computer language learning program, and take occassional lessons.  We participate in Spanish Sunday and temple services and Suzanne teaches keyboard in Spanish.  I read the medical reference books in Spanish as I try to match up the medicines I am familiar with with their counterparts here.  We don't read the Spanish newspapers or watch Spanish TV, as there isn't any time at all for that.  In another 16 1/2 months I expect to be able to say that we have continued to make slow, but sure, progress.


                               An experience related to learning Spanish:  

          About ten years ago when Suzanne, Micaela and I were preparing for our first CHOICE Humanitarian expedition to Guatemala, I made what was to me a startling discovery.  One night I was watching the news on a Spanish language TV channel.  I turned on the text sub-titles and muted the volume.  As I concentrated on the motions of the speakers' mouths I realized that Spanish speakers move their mouths vertically much less than English speakers do, in sounding their vowels.  Instead, their mouths open and close laterally much more than ours do, and that feature helps to give words the softer vowel sounds that we associate with this language.  To me, that discovery was striking, and it has helped me to speak the language a little more correctly.  I'm sure that everyone who has ever learned Spanish as a second language knows this, but to me it was an epiphany.




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