There’s nothing like practicing conversations with a native speaker when you are learning a foreign language. For many years, I took Spanish classes and came to the realization that, while I could read and write just fine, I still had trouble speaking the language. I had been practicing my Spanish with a neighbor who was originally from Mexico City, but that still wasn’t enough.
I realized that I had to be surrounded by people who didn’t speak any English for me to be forced to learn to converse in that language. I explained this to my friend, who suggested that I spend time with her family, as none of them spoke English – so I did just that. I spent two weeks with her family in Mexico City. My mini dictionary was glued to my hands, and I managed to get by.
Since I moved here in January 2016, my Spanish has greatly improved and aids to speaking have also improved. Google translate is so much better now than it was then. I can look up words and phrases that I do not know, which eliminates having to carry around a bulky paper dictionary. And – I am still taking Spanish lessons, but my needs have changed. Rather than rote classroom learning, I have online conversations with a friend in Puebla, and she can then see from our conversations where my needs are. Sometimes I need to learn more vocabulary and sometimes I need to work on sentence structure. Other times I need to learn colloquial expressions. There are so many areas where there might be a need to improve, and these are detected through normal conversations.
Meanwhile, just by looking at me you can see that I am a gringa, and there are many people who want to practice their English with me. In addition, the students in my village are also studying English in school. So now, three days per week, I am helping 3 primary school students and two adults learn and practice English.
But before this happened – I was using my printer to print out their homework during the pandemic. During the pandemic, teachers would send lessons and homework to the families electronically, and one of the families didn’t have a printer. Sometimes, upon realizing there were words and phrases in these papers that I wasn’t familiar with, I would make extra copies for myself. Here is one example:
The Teacher Shulte was sitting in a seat when suddenly a skull arrived and poked him in his butt.
So now I am learning about several things from this boy’s homework:
1 – A literary style called Calaverita literaria corta (literally “short literary skull”), similar to limericks.
2 – Learning new words specific to this geographical area – “petacas” for buttocks, which would also be called pompis or nalgas, butaca for seat and calaca for skull.
Now it has progressed from the families wanting me to help their children with their English to two adults also wanting to learn. With the children, I use their textbooks and homework as a guide, but with the adults, it became apparent that first they would need to learn the alphabet in English, as the pronunciation is so very different that they would have great difficulty pronouncing the written words correctly. So, I got out my white board, wrote out the alphabet and one of the women wrote how to sound out the letters as Mexicans would pronounce them:
There is no “W” sound, nor a sound for “Z” in Mexican Spanish, nor is there normally the “th” sound and words don’t normally begin with an “s” sound (school, student) but rather with an “es” sound (escuela, estudiante). So, there is a lot of work to be done with pronunciation, which is why I need to begin with the alphabet for the adults.
One thing I do let them know is that they will be learning to speak English with a New York accent as they are learning from me. My accent is not as strong as it used to be, but I still pronounce walk, talk and coffee with my NY accent (as in “wawk” “tawk” and “kawfee” with a strong “W”). As far as accents, there is more – Tuesday can be pronounced “tooz-day” or as the Canadians and some British pronounce it “chooz-day”, so I think that there might still be problems for the students when it comes to completely understanding English. Hopefully with time, it will all work out.
Meanwhile, the two brothers that I am helping have a baby sister, and the girl I am helping has a baby brother, so I am only speaking English to the babies, which hopefully will help them to be bilingual once they begin talking. I also try to make the lessons fun, using various methods – songs, etc. At first, the children were hesitant and somewhat withdrawn, but have gotten used to me now. They are more relaxed, realizing that I am not their teacher in school, not going to give them grades, and they are having individual attention.
So, all in all, this has become a wonderful new chapter in my life, bringing me closer to my neighbors, helping me with my Spanish as I help them with their English, and keeping my mind active and improving life in general.
Another word I learned from one of the children – Tazon for bowl. Normally, I would just hear them called platos, for plates.