Quantum Leaps

LANGUAGE IS weird. Bizarre. Quirky. Odd. Let me clarify: yes, language encompasses all of those things–each and every language has its own particular quirks and oddities (in the grammatical sense)–but I am referring here more to language acquisition, or the process of how a child learns another language.

You see, much of my job as a language teacher involves talking. I talk and talk and talk, filling young minds with Spanish babbling: the different rhythms and cadence, the syntax, the intonation, the words that sound the same as English and mean the same thing in Spanish, the words that sound the same as English but don’t mean the same thing in Spanish, and the words in Spanish that don’t sound like anything in English. There is a tremendous amount of input that must occur before you can expect any output.

Students listen and absorb, absorb and listen, don’t listen and don’t absorb, don’t listen and do absorb, and then just when I’m about to lose all hope–because sometimes I feel like I’m having a conversation with the wall or an inanimate object–they don’t say anything. But on the day after that, THEY DO! It is a bit magical.

Initially, it is a word here or there. “¡Hola!” “Could I go to the baño, I mean, bathroom?” “Wow, that is really grande (big)!” These phrases gradually–and ever so casually–are elongated over time: “¡Hasta luego, maestra!” and “Tengo hambre” (I’m hungry). “Quiero pintar” (I want to paint).

And then on some days, the conversation lulls: silence returns, deafening in every sense of the word, a lonely desert stretching as far as the eye can see. Wind whips across the dunes: English abounds. My conversation with the Inanimate Objects resumes. What happened?, I wonder. Is language like the tides? Did Spanish just go back out to sea? I don’t understand.

This is the fabulously irrational cycle, the pattern-less pattern, the inconsistent chain or sequence of events of language acquisition which lead to circles and spirals that appear at first to be a child’s scribbles. Nonsensical and incoherent, we not only allow but in fact encourage and invite the scribbles–the practice–because we know it’s leading somewhere. This Somewhere arrived for students in first grade today. Note that while “Somewhere” does not equate to fluency, it is a definite mile marker on the yellow brick road of their journey to proficiency, and should be congratulated.

In other words, the amount of Spanish in meaningful contexts–and complete sentences, at that!–that I heard this afternoon was astounding. Stars and planets aligned, the tide came in, the “English desert” disappeared, and WOW! “Quiero eso (I want that)”, “Ayúdame, por favor, maestra” (help me please, teacher) “¿Dónde está?” (where is it?) “Yo me llamo ______ (My name is _____).” Quiero ir a Guatemala con ____” (I want to go to Guatemala with so-and-so), “¡No quiero escribir!” (I don’t want to write!) “¡¡MIRA!!” (LOOK!) “Necesito rojo y azul, por favor” (I need red and blue [food coloring], please), “Vamos, amigos” (let’s go, friends!), “¿Puedo ir al baño?” (Can I go to the bathroom?).

It could just be the stifling heat–perhaps they are delirious and don’t realize they’re speaking in Spanish–but progress is being made, however intangible and unquantifiable. They are doing a wonderful job, and I just wanted to let you know that the class’ Spanish output today was truly incredible!