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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Who Really Taught Me Spanish - Was It My PLN?

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I've been blessed with being able to speak Spanish for a long time now. It's a real kick being a gringo and knowing my way around this wonderfully exotic language. And it may not have happened if it weren't for The Midnight Special.

Back in 1975, there were two Friday night concert shows on TV--The Midnight Special, first hosted by Wolfman Jack, and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert.

One night, two extraordinary acts hit the screen. One was David Bowie back in his glam rock days--the other was a British-American, flamenco-rock group called Carmen.

These days, you'd probably call Carmen's style world music or worldbeat. All I knew at the time was that they sang in English and Spanish and their sound really rocked.

So, I enrolled in Spanish lesssons at the International Centre and met Soñia Amaya, my Spanish teacher. Sonya taught us hapless Canucks how to trill our Rs and do various other pronunciation gymnastics which anglos have such difficulty with.

During the coffee breaks, I would sit myself down at a table full of Chileans--this was three years after the coup in Chile, so there were lots of them around--and test my halting Spanish. I'd ask if they had the time or invent any other excuse to start practising my rudimentary Spanish skills.

Well, I had a ball.

I got such a warm reception and made so many good friends that things snowballed from there. Setting foot into the Chilean world made mine so much bigger. They fed me and helped me learn their language. I heard their stories and grew to love them pretty quickly.

There were other Canadians who were just as adventurous and who were rewarded in the same way. And right about that time, I discovered that there was a small Spanish-speaking branch in my church.

I had hit the jackpot.

I was so excited. In fact, the first talk I gave in church was in Spanish, after I had spent eight months reading Condorito magazines, buying Chilean newspapers, listening to Radio Havana Cuba on the short-wave and working through a book called Spanish Made Simple.

Because of my association with Chileans, I learned all about the coup in '73, saw the movie Missing many times and tried to understand what my friends were telling me when they said they were in Canada as refugees--that they were forced to leave their country.

What an eye-opener.

The benefits of speaking Spanish have been extraordinary. But first, let's be clear. The language itself is not hard to learn. People talk about having a universal language and sometimes point to Esperanto. Well, Spanish has Esperanto beat hands down.

It's easy to learn, the grammar makes sense--I don't even have to know the meaning of a word to pronounce it properly--and it's already spoken in 21 countries. I love keeping a foot in each world--the Canadian and the Chilean. They really do complement each other.

I know my wife, who was born in Concepción, Chile, wouldn't have married a gringo who couldn't speak a word of Spanish, so I was lucky there. And that's the biggest blessing.

But it has enriched my life in other ways, as well.

I've learned that there are other ways of looking at things, other ways of thinking, other points of view. That the North American way of doing things is not the be-all and end-all. That has been a major benefit to me.

I like to think I'm more tolerant, more sensitive to racial issues, less patient with racial slurs, and more understanding of other people and cultures because of it.

I love this quote from anthropologist Wade Davis:

"The world in which you were born is just one model of reality.
Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you;
they are unique manifestations of the human spirit."

I owe a lot to this ability to speak such a warm and inviting language, to rub shoulders with such wonderful people, to have my world view broadened and my life enriched.

But my question is, who taught me Spanish? Am I really self-taught?

I could say I spent countless hours listening to La Voz de Los Estados Unidos on short-wave and many more dedicated to working through Spanish lessons on LPs, cassettes, and in manuals. I could give a nod to the excellent PBS sit-com Que Pasa USA--and to the many newspapers and magazines I pored over. Surely my own hard work combined with media and technology (such as they were) played a big part.

But even more important was the friendship of wonderful people in the early years. Recent immigrants who had little but shared their hospitality, friendship and their homes with me. Instructors who really cared about my success and the way I sounded. Church members who reached out to the Chilean wannabe in their midst. The Columbian woman at the Cosas Lindas Boutique who ran the local Hispanic radio show. My good friends Ivan and Victor. Later, my wife and my in-laws. All were huge influences.

In short, I had a large social network that adopted me just because I showed an interest in them, in their culture and language.

So, did I really "teach myself" Spanish?

Far from it.

I had a lot of people who mentored me, guided me and cared about me. People I enjoyed being with and who enjoyed being with me.

And even though we didn't have Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Livemocha--or any other social media tools to study languages with--we all shared and learned so much from each other.

To me, that wonderful network of friends sure sounds a lot like a pre-web PLN.

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