Recently my husband and I had the opportunity to travel to Peru for a few days. We celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary and had a great time visiting with friends there.
One of the biggest challenges I anticipated before our trip, of course, was la barrera del lenguaje—the language barrier. I had taken Spanish classes in college, but that was many years ago, and I’ve barely spoken any Spanish since. My vocabulary was sadly limited, and my grammar was rusty.
However, we were pleasantly surprised to discover how feasible it was to communicate, after all. Our hosts were gracious, warm, and understanding and were careful to speak slowly and clearly to us. They understood English pretty well, so they could fill in with an English word or two if we hit an impasse.
One of the first bits of advice they gave us upon arrival was not to drink the water, followed by the recommendation not to eat any lettuce. City water wasn’t suitable for drinking, and most families had some kind of filter in their homes. We had been prepared for the water issue and brought along water bottles with appropriate filters. But apparently the lettuce wasn’t safe for our foreign stomachs, although we were told we might safely consume any lechuga hidropónica (which, ironically enough, would have been grown in the same non-potable water we weren’t to drink). Whatever the reason, we followed their advice, and we never got sick.
We were often surrounded by several English-speakers who could help us all through some conversational droughts. For the most part, though, I tried not to rely on English translators. I kept reminding myself of the astute advice of a former choir director, who always admonished us, “Sing it wrong; sing it strong!” In other words, he wanted us all to sing out loudly, even if we weren’t certain of the part, so he could hear us and correct us if we needed it.
Likewise, it was helpful for me to bumble through the marketplace, stumble through possible mispronunciations, and fumble for the right words (Cuanto cuesta?), so our friends could jump in and correct when necessary. I learned a lot through trial and error.
One of the best ways we both learned, however, was by asking everyone to repeat unfamiliar words and then spell them for us. I carried a small notebook around with me and started writing down new words, and I kept having “Aha!” moments when I realized I recognized the word, after all. And not because I ever learned it in Spanish class, either: I recognized the root from old linguistic studies. (In spelling drills, we always asked for both sentence context and word origin, in preparation for spelling bees. And while I never progressed very far in either Latin or Greek as a child, we did dabble in basic words and word roots.)
When we visited a plot of land on which our hosts hope to build a home, for instance, they told us it was el terreno. When I wrote it down, I realized it corresponded to our English word terrain. It’s amazing what a common root language will do!
A love of language has always been my passion, and I would definitely recommend learning a second language as part of a well-rounded course of study. There are plenty of great programs out there, but if it’s not feasible for your family to utilize a formal language curriculum, there are still many ways to introduce another language to your kids:
1. Study word roots. It will help you appreciate and understand your first language better and lay a strong foundation for learning a second language.
2. Drill spelling and grammar rules. It’s true that good spelling and grammar will come naturally to avid readers, but studying the formal “Why” of the language cements the rules in your mind.
3. Listen to a wide variety of music. You can pick up a lot of foreign words just by hearing them in song. It turns out there are a lot of fun, upbeat Spanish-language songs that we love to listen to.
4. Try watching movies with subtitles on. This is a fairly painless way to introduce and reinforce a second language.
5. Check out foreign language picture books with everyday objects and bright colors. I still remember poring over all the pictures in 100 eerste woordjes. (Unfortunately I did not retain most of those Dutch words, although I still enjoy recounting the classic joke: “Which cheese is made backwards?”)*
Of course, the very best way to learn another language is to travel and become immersed completely in another culture. I don’t know that any but the most comprehensive book would have specified the common usage of abbreviations for numbers, but when I saw a sign on the wall for “2do piso,” it made sense immediately.
As a friend told me on our first night in Peru, when everything was just a bit overwhelming, “May you dream in Spanish!” The more time I spent talking and thinking in Spanish, the more it seeped into my subconscious mind. But it certainly helped to have had a strong linguistic foundation, and I hope to provide a similar springboard for my kids as we dabble and drill.
Photo Credit: Photos courtesy of author.