First Day in Class

Since I arrived in Costa Rica three days ago, my mind has been reeling with words in Spanish: todos, tambien, mucho gusto, voy, me gusta, duchas, ahora, arroz con pollo, como esta usted. The new words and phrases pepper my day as I read them in signs, hear them spoken everywhere and slowly begin to grasp their meaning. I have eavesdropped on conversations at my small pension where, if I am lucky, I will catch every 9th or 10th word as the speakers converse at natural speed. However, I wonder whether natural speed in English and Espanola are the same?? If a person were to study English in the southern part of America, where I am from, I think she’d have a far easier time as people tend to speak more slowly, to draw out their vowels and consonants. There seems to be no hurry to a conversation. I wonder if new comers to America feel this overwhelming sense of sounds that blur and merge, and experience utter chaos at interpretation as the meanings of words can be somewhat arbitrary, can alter with context and dialect and slang.
Language is an amazing thing and sometimes I am surprised that we can communicate at all. When you start to think about it, it’s surprising that most of the time we do manage to understand each other. With the complexity of languages, with all of the underpinnings of rules, structures and the ever present exceptions to them, it is a small miracle that so many of us continue to struggle with being understood. Today, at my school, there were at least 6 different languages being spoken and all of us, as students, share the common goal of wanting to converse in Spanish. Some need it for their jobs, others for university credit and others simply want to challenge themselves and wrap their tongues around awkward pronunciations and trilling rrrrrrrs.
The first class was long – 4 hours – and the pace swift. Our teacher will speak to us only in Spanish and while she enunciates clearly, she speaks muy rapido and jumps between tenses and uses vocabulary that is unfamiliar. She covered 4 pages in our text, asking us to memorize all the irregular verbs by tomorrow as well as write a paragraph about diversions in our native cultures and translate another paragraph from Spanish to English. We are to be tested on all materials tomorrow.
As an English teacher and someone who has worked intimately with hundreds of non-native English speakers, I have always respected my student’s bravery, dedication and diligence. A class like today’s reminds me of how hard it is to be in a place and a space of misunderstanding, of miscommunication, of confusion. It feels frustrating and slightly scary to hear a flow of words directed at you, to recognize syllables and sounds but to be unable to translate them into anything meaningful….and to know that someone is waiting on your reply. I know how hard it is to listen with every fiber of your being, to search your brain for clues as to a new word’s possible meaning, to try and retrieve a piece of information you know is buried somewhere in that dense cortex inside your skull. It is humbling. It is tiring. It is taxing on the mind, body and spirit. But it is also challenging and the reward comes when you say something fluently, when others look at you and nod in agreement, “Si. Yo entiendo. Yo comprendo.” To be at a table with others who share your goal and to take small steps toward learning together makes the journey seem far more palatable and a lot more fun. This is only day one and I will be at the school for a month. I hope I have the stamina and the courage to spend so many days inside a warm classroom when the beach and the sounds of the waves, which sing in a language everyone understands, sit just outside the window asking nothing of me except to come, to sit, to be in their presence. 4:30 pm, February 1, 2010

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About waggingmytale

I am an English teacher, writer, animal lover, and aspiring athlete. If you stop by and read or "stumble" upon my blog, please leave a comment and say hello. It's nice to know who visits :-) Namaste!
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