When it comes to second language learning, and second language teaching for that matter, you’ll often hear people talk about ‘practicing’ the language-in-progress outside the classroom. If a student in one of my classes has returned from a holiday in Spain or Latin America, one of the first questions I’ll ask is ‘did you practice your Spanish while you were there?’ when what I should be asking really is ‘did you speak Spanish while you were there?’ Practicing is what we do in the safety of the classroom. Living it is what we do outside the classroom. And without the crutch of textbooks, teachers and time, and often with insecurities gone wild and heartbeats in overdrive, the living of the new language is the scary part. I actually believe it’s less scary when you know the person with whom you’re speaking does not speak English because, in that case, you have no choice but to struggle your way through the only language available. When you know the other person has a stronger command of English than you have in his/her language, it’s much harder because English stands there, tapping your shoulder, whispering ‘I’m so much easier’ in your ear. And it takes real guts to say ‘no — I’d prefer to take twice as long to say what I need to say with mistakes exacerbated by nerves and a heavy accent.’
As the new year begins, I encourage you to live your Spanish, at whatever level you’re at, outside the classroom. Do a daily Spanish language workout by checking out the weather forecast in Spanish, listening to a song in Spanish on Youtube, reading one small article on line and writing out your to-do list in Spanish. If you have a store specializing in Latin American food in your area, make a point of going in, making small talk and purchasing something in Spanish. If you have Spanish or Latin American restaurants nearby, go there and force yourself to order in Spanish, even if the server takes one look at you and says ‘what can I get for you?’ in English. Anytime the opportunity to speak Spanish presents itself, seize it, no matter how shy you may feel. When I was teaching in companies early on, sometimes business people would be visiting from Latin America and, because I was on site at lunch hour or after work, I would invite them to attend the classes and get the students to write out simple questions to ask them. As a non-native Spanish teacher, I had to put any insecurities I had about teaching Spanish in front of native speakers aside. A few of these instances resulted in friendships outside the office, friendships which took place in Spanish and in Mexico well after the company classes were over.
The instinct to renovate and renew which comes with the new year is strong in me. In 2016, I plan to read El Amor en los tiempos del cólera by Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, see the new Spanish film Palmeras en la nieve, drop by Milton Latino on a regular basis, make a point of eating out at Latin American restaurants, master Mexican cooking, continue to incorporate all kinds of Hispanic things in my life (I drink Peruvian chicha morada on a regular basis) and re-write the workbooks I use in my classes. And of course I intend to keep up the above daily language workout suggested for students, something I’ve done all along. Let’s enjoy Spanish beyond the classroom as much as we can in 2016. Happy New Year! ¡Feliz año nuevo!