Can you turn a pan into a pig?

November 10, 2009

Paulo Freire believed that the process of learning to read began not with letters and sounds but with whole words. These words, he wrote, should be “generative,” or somehow expressive of the students’ lived reality: clear enough to be understood enough but ambiguous enough to inspire discussion and debate. With urban workers, for example, one might use the word favela, or slum. The teacher should begin by showing a slide of the word: FAVELA. The next breaks the word into syllables (FA-VE-LA), and the next into “phonemic families” (FA-FE-FI etc., VE-VO-VI etc., LA-LO-LU etc.) The students are then invited to construct new words from the syllables, connecting their constructions with the original in complete sentences- linking the visual with the verbal, spelling and meaning.

In second grade, we had our own version of Freire’s method. Students were each given a set of letters written on individual cards, and asked to spell a series of words. Each time, the word only changed by one letter (pan to pen, pen to pin, pin to pig), but the meaning changed completely. “Can you turn a pin into a pig?” the teacher would ask. The activity was designed to practice vowel sounds, but I liked it for the same reason I like the idea of Freire’s method: it requires that students translate sound into words through the physical manipulation of visual symbols.  It’s funny too.

 When you are a child, you learn by listening and speaking, and only later do you begin to develop the visual vocabulary that allows you to read. But if you are like me, when you learn a language as an adult you begin first with the visual symbols, working backwards towards meaningful sound.

Why? Because I’m not thinking in Spanish. I’m thinking in English words, which I connect with known, visualized Spanish words. In turn, I have a distinct “comprehension lag”: my brain is literally transcribing the English meaning while I listen to someone speak in Spanish.

In my third week of language classes, I recognized that this was my biggest challenge. I’ve made it through 200 pages of Love in a Time of Cholera in Spanish, but when someone tells me the definition of a new word I don’t remember it five minutes later. This particular challenge also means that  after carrying on what – at the time- seem like perfectly fluent conversations, I immediately begin to second guess what I understood. Or sometimes I’ll be doing really well, and my conversation partner will have just commented on how well I speak Spanish, and then they’ll ask me a question I don’t understand. After asking them to repeat it and still failing  to understand, I’ll be forced to resort to nervous laughter, earnest head shaking, and an elongated “Siiiii……”

And then there is the distinct phenomenon of linguistic collapse, which happens before morning coffee or after 8 PM. These are windows of time when I avoid speaking in Spanish at all costs, as I will inevitably mix up the genders of words and forget about indirect pronouns.

It is true that after speaking Spanish almost continually for a month, I’ve improved significantly and I feel much, much more confident. It is also true that I speak the most fluently when I’ve a) written out a script before a meeting and practiced or b) visualized the interaction in my head repeatedly and intensely. Needless to say, this is exhausting.

I’ve started to wonder if I will ever speak Spanish half as well as I speak English. Last week I had lunch with a friend and his Spanish girlfriend (A and E, respectively), and he and I spent a significant amount of time moaning about our Spanish anxiety. A studied abroad in Spain, has lived in Guatemala two summers in a row, and speaks Spanish day in and day out with E  (“You learn a language in the cradle or the bed,” he told me.) Yet he still admits that he can’t understand certain conversations without context. 

The visual- verbal divide was most pronounced when I studied Quiché, one of the four largest indigenous language families in Guatemala. Indigenous languages have only been standardized in the last fifty years, and all use the Spanish alphabet. But Spanish letters correspond to very different sounds in Quiché, sounds that require you to make use of every part of your mouth. Take, for example, the q glottal, a cluck-like sound that is made deep in the throat. Making it repeatedly requires (for me) a very large glass of water, as your throat quickly dries out from so much slapping-of-the-epiglottis, or whatever it is. (High school biology was a long time ago.) Surprisingly, I’m pretty good at repeating these sounds when I first hear them, but I can’t seem to remember them by the end of the lesson: there is no way to write these sounds in a way that I can remember them.

My official language lessons are done, and now I’m back in Guatemala City, trying to actually figure out how I do this project I proposed a year ago. I had my first meeting with one of my contacts yesterday. I wrote out two different drafts of a script and visualized, visualized, visualized. It all went very well and beautifully fluently until she gave me her cell phone number: I had to ask her to repeat it three times. Darn numbers. How am I expected to remember Spanish 1?

All I can say is thank goodness for YouTube, and the lovely person (with way too much time on their hands) who uploaded the BBC’s new version of Emma. How do you turn a Jane Austen-lover into a Spanish speaker? Unfortunately,  you cannot simply rearrange the letters.

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2 Responses to “Can you turn a pan into a pig?”

  1. Dani said

    your blog is as lovely as you are. ❤

  2. J said

    Gotta love a good round of Making Words! Never knew you were a fan…

    I’m sure you’ll be dreaming in spanish before you know it!

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