It seemed at first that everything I had heard about Spanish being easy just because we could read the Taco Bell menu without any great effort seemed to prove true when I sat down to a class and was taught the basics. Part of this had to do with the fact that I had been socking away at Latin for the five previous years with no success at all; part of the reason was I had been expelled and emotionally scarred for life by my French teacher because he said the language was not for me (he was right, because other than a huge crush I had on one of the girls in the class, I wasn’t thrilled to be there); and part of the reason was that I was growing up and was beginning to approach learning in a different way. But most of it had to do with the fact I just had a great teacher. She was a nutcase and a blast and not only got me hooked on Spanish, she made it fun too. She was a major influence on how I would teach later in life.
But she never taught me how to speak it. No one did. Like so many second-languages methods back then, the emphasis was put on getting that damn grammar down. Now that may have been alright with Latin since I wasn’t going to have use it to ask for a coffee in a bar in Rome, but for the rest of the tongues out there, knowing how to speak sure comes in handy. And so those years drifted by and my grades fluctuated here and there, but I was pretty much under the impression that I was gathering a good command of the language, when the truth was, I didn’t know a thing. Nada!
All it took was a little flight over to Madrid for me to realize immediately that I was ill-prepared. Ill-equipped. Illiterate. I couldn’t get a word out. It was like someone had cut off my tongue. I saw my host family look at me as if they thought I had been in coma for most of my life. And it’s moments like those when it dawns on you, that the reason we learn these languages is to communicate and that speaking is the most common form…but also the most challenging. You see, we can go without reading and writing a language, but everyone learns how to speak. That’s why three-year-olds can’t tie their laces, can’t spell, can’t ride a bike, can’t do algebra, but they have mastered the basics of a grammar and are using it all day long.
Speaking generates the most difficulty for second-language students because it requires the most effort, but when we learn, it’s what we often spend the least time on. It is not entirely ludicrous to calculate that I probably devoted little more than 10 minutes of my entire 5 years of learning Spanish to speaking it before being whisked off to Madrid to take on real life situations. Can you imagine practicing the piano for about ten minutes in five years of lessons and then being asked to perform a concerto?
It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to speak Spanish; I had just never acquired the skill to speak Spanish. And it ain’t the same thing, trust me.