It’s amazing how much the wandering monoglot can convey with grunts, smiles and gesticulations –but in Latin America, the only way out of the expat bubble is to actually speak Spanish.
Who has time though, for months of classes only to prepare for a week’s vacation?
Help, it turns out, is at hand.
Lina Polonsky-Doyle (not pictured) was born and raised in Venezuela and lived in the US, as well as Italy and Slovenia. She is running a kind of boot-camp for language learners, where you’re not so much asked to leave conventional notions of language learning behind, as frisked and stripped of them as you enter the room.
“Read this!” she tells me.
I’m not given a children’s book or a grammar hand-out…but a Greek myth.
It starts off reasonably enough, with Demeter and Persefone gathering flowers in sunlit fields.
As I read the words out phonetically – thankfully most Spanish words sound as they’re spelled – Lina sits at her computer, highlighting the words and phrases I’ve stumbled on, jotting down definitions.
Shortly after, she asks me what the words mean, and then tests me again. In other words, we go straight to the vocabulary, skipping sentence structure, tenses and all the other things you feel you’re supposed to learn when tackling a foreign language.
“Think of how babies learn language!” she yells.
“By pointing at an object, ‘Oh! That is a plate!’ Or ‘…I’m hungry…!’”
If Lina’s method is unconventional, she does not subscribe to the new age philosophy that ‘there is no wrong way’ of doing things. Oh there is indeed. And should you ask how to conjugate the verb this way or that – the beloved sport of conventional language teachers – you’ll get a succinct description of just where you can file such an idea.
Why? Well, when you were a baby, you didn’t learn to speak in full sentences by knowing what a gerund is or by asking how to put your statement in the conditional. No, you simply watched and listened. You imitated those around you, forming sentences to describe needs, feelings and the world around you.
Many instructors emphasize grammar, sprinkling vocabulary along the way. But Lina says that’s backward. “Focusing on grammar is like correcting people before they’ve even started talking!”
Long before other classes have wrapped up the ER and IR verbs, Lina has us reading short stories, translating and even summarizing them in Spanish.
Hades has now spotted Persefone, and Demeter is looking for her daughter.
It doesn’t look good.
You’re not only learning new words like gather, harvest, run and return, you’re spurred on by the plot to look them up with a fervor seldom generated by such books as “Fun with Grammar.”
Here, I’m an uncharacteristically keen student, somehow reading in Spanish about an increasingly desperate Persefone. “Qué quieres de mi?” (What do you want of me?) “Ayudame!” (Help me!)
These are more than key words for captives. You’re more likely to learn the words when it helps you unlock a rapidly evolving plot. You see them in the context of a story and use them, rather than read words in disembodied lists, to be seen today and forgotten tomorrow.
Sure, you’ll encounter different tenses, singular and plural. But if you want to go beyond past present and future, and stray into more exotic territory, like asking about various conditional tenses – then you’re on your own. “You can study that at home!”
Lina hands out stories, scripts, a screenplay for a Mexican gangster film – anything containing everyday Spanish. She quotes theorists, such as Noah Chomsky – and Lev Vygotsky, who stresses gradual, repetitive learning. We need to repeat a new word 62 times, for example, before it’s truly anchored in our vocabulary.
Many courses stop short of that, which is perhaps why, when asking someone for directions or ordering food, we’re often at a loss.
“So the waitress has already come and gone…or you’ve already been put in jail – and you’re still looking for the right word!”
Jail? I suppose that’s one incentive to do your homework.
Whether your linguistic arsenal begins and ends with Hola, or you’re an advanced Spanish speaker exploring the finer points of the beautiful language, do make your way into the Lake Chapala area, and on to the cobblestone streets of Ajijic, to el Colegio de Axixic.