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Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Book that Opened a World to My Son

This past summer, my 14-year-old son blew me away by learning Spanish in about two months flat. Naturally, I'm not talking about complete fluency. But Ryan is now what I consider functionally bilingual.

Besides having a heck of a lot of determination, he owes a big part of his success to a book. Here's the story.

One day, suffering from a case of floppy summer boredom, Ryan asked me, "Dad, how did you learn Spanish?" I told him about taking Spanish lessons, striking up conversations with the Chileans there during breaks, listening to shortwave radio, frequenting a Latin-American store downtown, buying Condorito comics and other Spanish magazines, and generally hanging with a community that in some measure adopted this intrepid gringo.

Then I mentioned Spanish Made Simple.

It was a book I pored over every night, slogging my way through its 50 chapters, repeating the dialogues out loud, working through the half dozen intense exercises after each chapter. That nightly effort yielded me functionally bilingual status after about a half year.

He asked, "Can we still get a copy?"

"Gee, I don't even know if it's still in print," I said. But we called up McNally Robinson and were able to order it in.

I see that it's been given a graphic facelift for a new generation, but the dialogues and the exercises haven't changed a bit since I picked it up 30 years ago. It's the same book only prettier. And you can order it for your Kindle or Kobo reader, too.

So, Ryan starts to study seriously, often bugging my wife and me to practice with him, listening to Spanish pop songs on YouTube, and increasingly becoming smitten by all things EspaƱol.

In the evenings, he's working through the book - doing exactly what I did decades ago.

He starts Facebooking his cousins in Edmonton, then our relatives in Chile. Lo and behold, he understands them, and they him.

The kid is hooked.

My wife and I never taught our two boys Spanish but used it as code for talking to each other without the boys understanding us. Now, there's nothing we can say around Ryan in Spanish that he won't get. This is not convenient. But the upside is we have another Spanish speaker in the house.

My eldest, Mark, is good-natured about being out of the Latin-American loop. He graduated from French immersion and, parallels between romance languages being what they are, he can still sometimes figure out what we're up to.

Anyone who speaks a second language knows the world opens up so much wider. Not only do you learn the language itself, but you're enriched by another culture and - more importantly - other ways of thinking; including the realization that the North American way of viewing the world isn't the only way.

You get a foot in both worlds and that's a healthy thing.

Yesterday, my son hooked up with a Chilean relative he's never talked to before on Facebook. Today, he asked us to speak nothing but Spanish to him for an hour. Tonight, he was asking my wife what English sounded like to her when she came to Canada from Chile as a 12-year-old.

Ryan now has a language skill that can play a big role in his life. Of course, it was his own curiousity and drive that propelled him forward, and he still has lots to learn. But the book was a huge help in giving him a basic grounding in grammar and speech.

As much as I like admire change and keeping things fresh, I'm thrilled that the same words and exercises that inspired me when I was 19, have done the same for him much earlier.

Who knows, maybe one summer his son will ask, "Hey dad, how did you learn your Spanish?"

Also read, Who Really Taught Me Spanish - Was It My PLN?

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