Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Language Learning: Why Bother?

I don't know many foreigners living in Mexico who speak really good Spanish. Because I started studying the language as a kid, continued in college, and used it from time to time as an adult, I had a good basis in Spanish when I moved to live in Mexico full time a few years ago. As a result, becoming proficient enough to comfortably socialize with Mexicans and handle all of my own business affairs has not been the huge step for me that it is for many.

Of course there are plenty of foreigners who move here, work on their Spanish, and do very well. But it is amazing the number of people who come to live in Mexico and never, even after many years, learn Spanish. Many of these folks are perfectly happy this way and see no need to make the effort to do so. Others would like to learn, but think that it's too hard or they are "too old," so don't put forth much effort.

From what I've seen, these people live isolated within a limited social group of people who speak English. Many live happily enough within this circle, but in some ways remain perpetual tourists in the society where they have chosen to live, and forever dependent upon others to interpret and assist in day-to-day living.

Expats who live in Mexico and don't learn the language often count upon bilingual go-betweens to get things done and keep up with what is going on. Many make purchases and use services based upon whether the provider speaks English rather than the quality of the service or products. When it comes to goods and services, non-Spanish speakers often pay a stiff premium for the need to do all transactions in English. These types of services are necessary for short-term visitors and people in transition, but dependence upon them can be limiting for those who live here for the long term.

Why bother with Spanish? Here are a few good reasons I can think of:

Social and cultural: For most people, the biggest benefit of being able to speak the language is access to a vastly larger and more diverse social circle and a greater appreciation of the culture. A Spanish-speaking expat will meet many more possible friends among the locals and among foreigners from other parts of the world who although they may not speak English, likely will speak Spanish. In my case I know French and Italian residents here who don't speak English; we communicate in Spanish. Speaking the language also increases depth of understanding and appreciation of the arts such as music, theater, poetry readings, and all manner of public and cultural events.

There is a lot of cultural information that is transmitted by language, and it's very difficult to understand the real meaning of much that goes on around you without it. This background is not something one absorbs through beginner- or mid-level language classes or by learning a lot of vocabulary. It takes time and immersion in Spanish to get to this stage, but it is well worthwhile for those who choose to live here permanently. When you get to the point that you understand the background cultural context of certain words and expressions, and begin to understand and make jokes, puns and wordplays, you finally are approaching a level of language knowledge in which you can begin to understand the nuances of culture.

I find that among expats there is a fairly dependable correlation between being critical of Mexico and Mexicans and not understanding much Spanish. I think the basis for this attitude is the lack of understanding of the culture they are living in and not knowing any Mexicans beyond a superficial level.

Efficiency: If you speak the language, it is much easier to get things accomplished efficiently and effectively, whether that's shopping, explaining a problem to a police officer, banker, computer tech, plumber or mechanic, or dealing with functionaries in businesses and government offices. If you need medical attention, you can go to the best specialist or doctor of your choice regardless of language issues, and communicate your needs clearly without needing a translator.

Independence: If you speak Spanish, you can go out driving or take buses with much less concern about getting lost because you can always ask directions. You confidently can go exploring in the countryside or look for an address in an unknown area. Most importantly, you are able do these and many more things by yourself and on your own schedule.

Involvement: If you can talk with the locals, it's easier to keep up with happenings in the neighborhood. If you love to chat, you'll find neighbors who will enjoy helping you practice your language skills, and at the same time fill you in on what's going on on your street. You'll also get invited to more neighborhood events, and probably find neighbors willing to help out when you have a problem. In addition, you can keep up with what's going on in the region and country without relying upon someone else's version: you will be able to read the paper and watch or listen to local news.

Intellectual: Studies have shown that language learning, at any age, is good for the brain and memory. Research also shows that it is possible to learn a new language even at an advanced age, so being "too old" is a weak excuse.

Speaking Spanish has enriched my life in Yucatán in so many ways it would be hard to include them all in a blog post. At this point I go for days at a stretch without speaking English at all. I can't imagine living here without being able to participate as fully as possible in the life and culture around me.

Read earlier posts on language learning:
Making it Memorable
Live the Language


  1. I've often thought "I'm too old," but I also notice that when I'm down there, I pick up bits and pieces with a speed I find surprising. I haven't given up, but being stuck up here makes it harder. Thanks for the inspiration. I know it is enormously enriching to speak the language and I want to very much. Off to study. :-)

  2. Bravo Marc -

    Well Said! o ¡bien dicha!


  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I completely agree about the benefits of speaking Spanish beyond a beginner level.

    Some additional advantages: You can save a surprising amount of money. For example, you can rent a regular Mexican home from a Mexican at local rates instead of paying the often higher rates charged by extranjeros or English-speaking management companies.

    Also, the more Spanish you learn, the better you get at schmoozing with all types of vendors, which makes everything more pleasant and gets you a better rate.

    For me, the biggest benefit has been the ability to make Mexican friends. Even when I was still in the US, I noticed that the Mexicans and Guatemalans that I met had much deeper conversations with me than American acquaintances usually had. Now I'm enjoying the same type of deeper conversations here.

    I'm in no way fluent, and when I'm stressed I regress to babbling idiocy, but even then I benefit from whatever Spanish I manage to scrape together.

  4. Lynette: Keep on studying. It's good for you, and I KNOW you will be here and using it one of these days.

    Debi: Thanks for reading and commenting. I keep enjoying your blog...I don't coment much...need to work on that.

    Yucatango: Obviously you know that the key is to try. If you do your best, you DO learn, and if people sense that you are sincere, respect their culture and are trying, that's the biggest advantage. You make some good additional points. I hadn't really given much thought to the depth of conversations angle, but I know that you are correct. I have had hours-long, deep talks with Mexican friends here that are unlike the run-of-the-mill conversation back in the states. I think it's because personal relationships are much more important here. It can be very satisfying, and is one of the many rewards for persisting in learning Spanish.

  5. Wow. Lynette must have been inside my brain because her thoughts are also mine.

    I think it's important, and respectful, to learn the language of the country you're living in. I wonder, are those expats who refuse to learn Spanish the same people who get upset when immigrants to the US or Canada don't speak English?

    Why expats wouldn't take the time to learn Spanish is truly beyond me. I'm studying beginner level right now and I'm as excited as can be to put it all into practice when we next come down.

  6. Barb: We're in agreement on these things. You pose an interesting question about "those expats who refure to learn Spanish" being the same ones who get upset when immigrants to the US or Canada don't speak English. I suspect that unfortunately sometimes they ARE the same people.

  7. Just commented on Cotton's Mexpatriate blog about gringo gripes and how they don't even bother with Spanish. Boggles, really does.


  8. Perpetual tourists. That hits it on the nail head. When I moved south over 11 years ago, I immediately enrolled full-time in a language school, and I studied like a loony person, every day, all day, or so it seemed at the time.

    It has made living here so much more interesting and far easier and cheaper. My wife does not speak English, and I rarely socialize with Gringos, so I rarely speak English. Anyone can do it if they make the effort.

  9. B.S. - We are in agreement there. I don't understand the mindset. Although on a certain level it makes sense. I think many of these are folks are mainly interested in an inexpensive place to live with nice weather. They are not much interested in living in another culture, so they don't.

    Felipe: I think we live in fairly similar ways. My significant relationships are with Mexican people, and I have drifted away from most of my friendships with gringos. It was not a plan; it just evolved that way. I'm happy, and that's the important thing.

  10. Though I generally agree with the points you make, it bears saying that some people prefer to be ''perpetual tourists'' -- not speaking Spanish is an excellent excuse to not get too involved, and some people are looking for a non-involved life. This seems to bother some expats quite a bit, but I'm not sure why.

    I also have a somewhat different view than that expressed in your comment: ''I find that among expats there is a fairly dependable correlation between being critical of Mexico and Mexicans and not understanding much Spanish." In contrast to your experience, it seems to me that those who are MOST critical about Mexico are those who have the most detailed and nuanced understanding of its politics/economy/social structure. The non-Spanish speakers, at least those with a fairly limited understanding of the country, seem to be far far less critical (in the sense of rose-colored glasses).
    But, perhaps this depends on just what one means by ''critical''...
    Just some thoughts...not trying to be critical!

  11. mcm, I guess you are correct in your observation that some prefer to be "perpetual tourists," and not to get inlvoved.

    What I meant to say in the comment about the non-Spanish speakers and criticism is that those who don't speak the language often have a superficial viewpoint and are more likely to resort to uninformed, "They" this, "They" that type of criticisms. I agree with you that those who have more language skills and more background are often critical, but I make a distinction between informed, thoughtful criticism and uninformed generalizations. I think we are on the same page. Perhaps I wasn't specific enough.

  12. I live with a Mexicano and fortunately had been studying Spanish for years. I find it is an ongoing process and I don't know what to say when someone says "are you fluent" I always hear myself making some error in conversations. But I am commited and it is so liberating to be able to conduct any kind of business, and develop friendships in Spanish. The gringos who can't be bothered with Spanish are very isolated from a wonderful culture. Love your blog!

  13. Robyn: Thanks for reading and commenting. Just moments before I read your comment I had looked at your blog for the first time. It's so different there from Yucatán I am interested. I will have to dig into your blog and find out more.

    I have heard from many other foreigners who, like you and I, really appreciate what the culture has to offer if one only will learn to understand and speak the language. It's an entirely different world we live in than the one some of those "gringos down the street" inhabit. Amazing.

  14. In my fishing village, I hardly hear English spoken -- unless I happen to be with one of the few expatriates who brave the tropical summers in Melaque. When I came to San Miguel, I heard several times that I would not need to speak Spanish. Well, that is not true. I talked to at least ten people today. Only one spoke English (far better than my Spanish. Without the barebone Spanish I can speak, I would not have been able to buy a theater ticket, ask a cabbie for directions, order a meal, buy some milk, or try to figure out if a workman actually was going to plummet to his death in front of a group of us. I am not certain how anyone navigates in Mexico without knowing the language. It has given me a far better feeling of how isolated Mexicans who cannot speak English must feel in The States and Canada.

  15. Steve: It's interesting that you are responding from San Miguel. I think I've commented to you in that past that on my visits to SMA it didn't seem very Mexican. What I found was pretty, theme-park like, and full of gringos who looked like vacationers and English-speaking Mexicans trying to sell me things for dollars. It has always seemed to me to be one of those places where those gringos go who aren't really interested in learning Spanish or in delving into the culture very deeply. Perhaps you can disabuse me of that impression. I appreciate your point of view and value your observations. What do you think?

  16. Oh so much to comment on here! First, learning Spanish. It is a little like losing weight and exercising more... you know you'll feel better if you get with the program but there's always mañana. Whether or not those who speak more Spanish complain more? I would say yes, but I'd call it informed commenting, not the confused "Well I don't understand why THEY can't be..." And a word about SMA. I was prepared to have your opinion when I went there for a course. On the surface, I guess it is that way, but the longer I spent there, I saw another, very wonderful SMA. And why was I able to? I speak Spanish...

  17. Joanna:

    Thanks for the input, You are another person whose opinion I value and respect.

    I'll be in the vicinity of SMA later this month, Maybe I need to stop by and buy Steve a cup of coffee (or dinner) and see what he has to say...

  18. We have Rosetta Stone, Spanish for Dummies, and have discovered Destinos on the net, but nothing is going to get us to fluency except total immersion in the culture. Wish it could happen tomorrow...but soon, hopefully.

  19. John and Alan:

    When you start spending lots of time here it will just start to happen. You'll surprise yourself. At least for me, being in the environment is a much better teacher than any of the other things you can do.

  20. I hate to be a "wet blanket" (aguafiestas ?) on this very interesting post, Marc, but….

    There ARE people, really, who have more trouble learning a new language than do others. But perhaps what I believe is "fluent" is a bit strict. Despite many efforts (especially after receiving my only ever "D" --in college Spanish 4), I still struggle, daily. I am pretty sure I don't have enough years left to ever reach the stage of actually "thinking" in Spanish, which I believe is the stage to real fluency. Sure, some words I do "think" in Spanish e.g., "garrapatas", precisely because I have had to use these words, in caring for my dogs. But the verb tenses, are coming very slowly. Particularly difficult are medical appointments, regardless of the language used. As I said to one doctor, one who was speaking in English: The visits are stressful because I am so busy translating that I'm not doing the other-wise important --THINKING. And I added, "I'm sure it's the same for you, too." He seemed to agree with me.

    My (expensive) private lessons in the USA ended with the teacher observing that I was "too analytic." I've even read a text in which the writer urged us to simply memorize the model verbs, and not to "over analyze" them.

    Yet progress does occur, slowly. I can now call to make an appointment for a haircut, whereas I used to have to go there in order to do it in person. In fact, know a very proficient person who still has problems in Spanish on the 'phone. (It's probably because important non-verbal feedback is missing via telephone--a puzzled look means "I said it wrong?")

    If others out there are having problems as well, one site I'd like to recommend is: http://www.synergyspanish.com/ The author, Marcus Santamaria has some really interesting inputs, especially his "sideways" approach to learning verb conjugations. (http://www.synergyspanishsystems.com/blog/turns-spanish-learning-upside-down/

    So, thanks for listening, Marc. I look forward to more of your offerings on this, and all, subjects.

    IF I ever have the time to devote enough attention to it, I'm going to attach a blog to
    my own site. The subject of language learning is so important.

    And I again support your own support for La MÚSICA Method! It's now time for this RELAXING learning.

  21. I agree with what you have said but trust me, I am the worst language learner. I get sidetracked in my classes whenever politics or culture comes up, the Spanish gets brushed aside by the tasty stuff. I get my share of heartbreak, I thought I was ordering pasta but liver soup showed up at my table. I have had to resort to my compass more than I would like. I manage with as much goodwill as I can generate from my fellows, Spanish or not.

  22. Alinde:

    You sure have thought a lot about language. I agree with you, "fluent" involves a lot more than most people think. I know almost no foreigners who are truly fluent in Spanish.

    The phone is an interesting one...we realize how important body language and non-verbal cues are. No making faces, waving arms and pointing there. It is much harder at the beginning.

    I know that learning lanaguages in general harder for some than others. But I do know that being persistent, being immersed in the environment and trying and having a good attitude are very important. I think you have those things going for you. You can certainly become proficient enough to get things done, have a good social life and have a lot of fun, without being fluent. As a former language teacher, I always tell people to find learning situations in which they can do things they enjoy, ie if you are passionate about painting, take an art class in Spanish. It might be hard at first, but you'll be motivated and probably find folks with similar interests who will enjoy helping you.

    Thanks for being a consistent reader and commenter of this blog.

  23. Norm, I think that risk-taking and having a sense of humor, such as you demonstrate, go a long way. And, as I just commented to Alinde, above, working on Spanish within the context of personal interests makes it a lot more fun. I am sure that if you are talking about politics and culture (in Spanish) you are learning more language that you might think.

  24. There are two sorts of people - scientific analytical types and artistic creative types. The former have a more difficult time learning other languages. It requires a completely different approach. My husband is more artistic although he would not use that word to describe himself - I guess he would say he uses language and writing in his work. I had spent over 25 years working in a scientific field.

    We were in Spanish class and I was hopelessly lost in understanding verb conjugations. I still get lost with -ando -ado -iendo etc etc. I asked our teacher to make a chart for me because it was the only way I would ever understand it - give me math! graphs! chart it out for me! The teacher didn't have a hot clue what I meant. And then he would start talking about Past Progressive, Imperfect Progresive and I would tell him that I didn't know what that meant in English much less in Spanish. Needless to say I can't conjugate a verb to save my life but I blunder on and someday the light bulb may come on in my head. Meanwhile, I do nearly all my business in Spanish and never rely on an interpreter and do use local businesses. I had decided that for the doctor I needed one that could speak English as I didn't want to misunderstand something important. Turns out my doctor's English is decent but she also has language deficits, but between us we figure it out. So I guess we are somewhere in between - not fluent but not relying on English speaking Mexicans for our business and day-to-day needs.

    Now that I read that you are a former language teacher, I understand why you may have had an easier time becoming fluent. Eventually I will get there, but I think its going to take a different teacher with a different approach.

    While being immersed in the local action and being able to take care of our needs in Spanish is so important, I don't want to stop having interactions with other Canadians or Americans. Many of them are my friends and I'm not sure I want to go days without speaking English either.

    Thanks for your perspective, I enjoyed it.

  25. Joanne: Thanks for adding interesting information. I am a creative type, but when I started studying Spanish in public schools more than 40 years ago, it was very structured: memorize conjugations, charts for endings, etc. I had to memorize those and learned to use them. I can still remember them and can recreate them from memory. So, I guess I had the best of both worlds, structure for the analytical side, and the more flexible creative side that I think, as you point out, often makes it easier to learn language.

    By the way, I do not consider myself fluent. I get into situations still when stuff goes right over my head, but I do not have any trouble most of the time. At this point I continue to slowly improve my Spanish, but I am not there at this point.

    Thanks for taking the time to make such thoughtful comments.

  26. Marc, I would also like to thank you for the points that you make, but more so for the WAY in which you make them. I've felt that a few bloggers have approached this topic in a denigrating manner, labeling expats as arrogant, insensitive dolts who could not care less about respecting Yucatecans and their culture. You emphasize what one would miss by not learning to speak Spanish and forming relationships, which for me is the incentive I need to try my best. After all, we are not moving to Mexico because it's a cheap place to live, but for an opportunity to enjoy a rich cultural experience.

  27. John and Alan...well there are some of those "other" types of expats out there. I get so frustrated or embarrassed by (and for) them that I am tempted to say things at times, but I just let it slide. I prefer to stay on the positive side, especially in the blog.

    Thanks for your continuing contributions to the blog dialog.

  28. It's the same in China: A huge amount of foreigners move there and never learn Chinese. Somehow they manage to get by! I'm glad I found your blog, its great! - Myra, http://interactiveexpat.blogspot.com

  29. Myra, I guess it happens all over the world. Not surprising.

    I just looked at your blog and signed up as a follower.

    Thanks for commenting.

  30. Well written and thought out, Marc. I would like to offer a somewhat different view.

    One of the attractions of living as an expat outside the U.S., is not knowing fully the language. I have been freed from much of the mundane drivel that characterizes conversations, fantasies and facebook posts back in the States. So much delusion and melodrama.

    Mexico has similar melodrama, maybe even kicked up a notch or two; but my language barriers shield me from some of that nonsense. It is much easier to live like a hermit or monk on a silent retreat.

    My language skills enable me to take buses, ask questions, go to doctors, chat on a park bench with locals and enjoy friendships. Sometimes I plead an ignorance that isn't there just to shield myself from unwanted conversation topics. I have said that should I ever become truly fluent, it will be time to relocate to a place with a different language. I mean that.

    Having said that, more of my friends are locals than expats. But they are ones I have carefully selected and cultivated. Thinkers more than talkers.

    Fluency is a two sided coin. The benefits also come with a cost.

    I like living behind walls.

  31. Like Marc, I started learning Spanish back when there were grammar charts (1970s for me). The approach combined simple visual organizers (the charts) with memorization and, luckily for me, funny stories.

    Out of curiosity, I just searched Google for Spanish conjugation charts. I couldn't find any sites that use the charts I remember, which were 6 cells that focused on the verb endings alone. They made it easy to compare conjugations in different tenses.

    Instead, teachers (or at least their web sites) seem to be presenting long lists of fully conjugated verbs, or unformatted lists of endings that make it hard to see patterns. If this is how they're teaching Spanish these days, it must be frustrating to be a learner.

    Paul, I've found that conversations with Mexicans tend not to have as much mundane, ego-driven blather as US conversations can have.

  32. Paul, I can depend upon you for a different perspective. You make some very valid and interesting points...the benefits DO come with costs. I can no longer pretend in my neighborhood to not understand in order to avoid an unpleasant topic or time-wasting gossip. They've got my number. I recently enjoyed this article, and it makes me think of you:


    Yucatango, I still have those charts in my mind, and you are right, it is a very easy way to organize, analzye and compare information. When I began studying Russian years after taking my first Spanish classes, I made charts and organized the Russian verbs in the same way, because the template is branded on my brain and it made it very, very easy to learn lots of regular verbs and even conjugate unknown new verbs with a fair level of success.

    I also agree with you Yucatango, about the quality of conversations with many locals here. Actually I have a post related to that topic that I have had, partially finished, in my drafts for months. Maybe this is a good time to dust that one off and post it.

  33. Sorry that my earlier post did not include a "clickable link." I hope this one does. I'm especially addressing Yucatango's post, about the charts.

    The site below does not present the charts themselves, but I have been reconstructing them, slowly, by his "sideways" method. I do believe this method enables those of us who may benefit from seeing similarities. In fact, I have to agree with the author, Marcus Santamaria, that this approach is a breakthrough, possibly (I believe) for those of us who are "visually oriented."

    (If the link is not clickable, just copy it into your browser, and try.)


  34. Alinde, thanks for the link. Marcus Santamaria's approach looks like a good one -- he makes the patterns explicit and easy to remember, and it looks like he focuses on the most-used words.

  35. I totally agree. Even though my Spanish is still hesitant, I have started to just blurt out what I want to say regardless and not worry so much about getting everything just right. This has resulted in enormously rewarding discussions with people from all walks of life. As I do this, I find I am understanding more and more and am constantly getting better.

    My words of encouragement to all: Just Say It. No fear! Do it and you will learn.

  36. Physiological brain development effects seem to explain many of your observations about peoples varying abilities and interest in learning a foreign language. In my perception, the main article and many of the comments have been sprinkled-with or at least shaded-by or shaped-by some subtle but judgmental comparisons between people who are working with very different basic brain tools and abilities.

    There is one key period in life that seriously pre-determines our abilities to learn and speak foreign languages: ages 11 - 15/16. Our brains start significant physical rewiring at around age 11 and do not finish the process until around age 26.** Roughly, during the period between ages 11 and 15, our brains go through an ongoing unique use-it-or-lose-it process, where the person must develop and use a skill, or likely they will "lose it" for life. Whole areas of abilities are grown or pruned-away depending on usage between ages 11 and 15 (mas o meno)..

    If you were not exposed to foreign languages or learning foreign languages until after age 15 or 16, then the person will likely have real physiological limitations on their ability to pick-up and naturally speak a foreign language. Since important brain re-wiring and development is mostly done by age 27, if someone does not attempt to learn a foreign language by age 28, they will likely have great difficulty learning new languages the rest of their life.

    There are notable exceptions to this arm-chair analysis of physiological brain development: The brain's dura mater continues to grow well into our 70's, and the numbers of interconnections and cross-linking between internal brain neurons continues well into our 70's, as long as we excercise, stretch, and use our brains.

    Competing Effects: Physical speed of brain processing slows gradually and continuously after about age 27, but concomitant increases in dura mater thickness & penetration into the brain, and the growth of the brain's internal interconnections (a.k.a. experience and experiences ) balance the losses in raw cognitive processing powers (diminishing calculational speed and fact retrieval speed), giving average people the best combination of processing power and experience/wisdom at roughly age 45. By age 70 - 75, most average people's brain power has diminished noticably. One notable exception to these trends are the active brains of the top 10% of the distribution, who still solve problems and perform on mental tests as well as the top 10% of 20-25 year olds. Bright seniors solve the problems very differently and generally more creatively than 20-somethings, bringing experiential knowledge and creative cross-connections developed over decades, even though their memory retreival times are much longer.

    These biological facts play heavily into determining what you describe: There are groups of people who just did not develop foreign language skills by age 16, and a number of experts report that they will never become "fluent" in speaking a foreign language.
    (continued below in next post)

  37. Continued from previous post:
    The people who were fortunate enough to focus some substantial bits of their teenage resources on other languages, built a good physiological brain platform for future foreign language learning and use, and they have that foundation and platform to trot around on the rest of their lives.

    An Anomoly or Another Consequence of Brain Physiology and Foreign Language Learning: The children who learned a foreign language and spoke it well, before age 11, (particularly those who learned it during the 2-5 year old period of rapid learning & pruning), but who did not actively use the language after age 10, often report not knowing or not speaking the language as adults. These things are not laziness nor lack of will power, just physical limitations.

    Bright people who did not deeply learn or did not heavily use a foreign language as a teen, can learn one when older, especially in memory-driven tasks like building large vocabularies, and they can have very creative insights into the mechanics of a foreign language, but it will take much greater effort and persistence to make modest gains in actually speaking the language (compare reading skills vs. conversational skills, where reading Spanish can be a snap compared to forming sentences).

    In my perception, the main article and many of the comments have been sprinkled-with or at least shaded-by or shaped-by some subtle but judgmental comparisons between people who are working with very different basic brain tools and abilities.

    (Bored? quit reading now. Interested? see next post)

  38. Do we expect an electronic's tech to install and fix plumbing? Look in the plumber's tool kit: pipe wrenches, hole saws, pipe cutters, and a hack saw ( needed for foreign language/plumbing) are necessary to install a toilet or sink, Similarly, the plumber's tools are just not suited to measuring impedences, resistances, or voltages, or for doing fine-work. Yes, the electronics guy and the plumber both have screwdrivers, pliers, and soldering equipment, but pipe soldering skills only nominally transfer to soldering circuit board components, and tiny specialized electronics pliers can't replace big Channelocks. The obverse works similarly: the electronics guy will likely leave lots of leaks in his wake.

    This crude metaphor desribes how it looks like people have the same brains and same tools, (screwdrivers, pliers, cutters and torches), they really are not equipped to do the same tasks. The language plumber who can intuit where to cut a hole in the wall will have great difficulty learning & doing electronics, and the electronics tech will have to get out his tape measure, pencil, and paper to figure out where to cut.

    The teen who practiced and learned a foreign language, and then used it (especially in immersion situations) really does have it much much much easier than older learners. Expecting older learners to pick up natural speaking of a foreign language (especially when first attempting after age 50) is sort of like asking a 250 pound 50 year old guy to run sub 4 hour marathons.

    For those who have the "gift" of languages, imagine trying to step onto the dias and clean & jerk 400 pounds. Maybe after 5 years of hard regular efforts & training, you could do it.

    I offer these things to encourage, build, and grow more understanding, acceptance, and tolerance between people on the very peculiar issues of learing foreign languages.

    Overall, a dandy thought provocing and insightful article !
    **Sidelight: I personally think the ongoing physiological re-wiring of the brain until age 26 or 27 much explains why the people we marry at age 20-22 often turn into somewhat different people by age 30. By age 28, we finally have a stable consistent brain platform to work with, and that is the age when we also (coincidentally?) as adults, begin to pick and choose between the "internal rules" that society has given us as to how we should act. With the finally stable platform, between ages 28 and 32 we can identify the key bits of our adult selves, and toss away the "internal rules" that don't fit, which mostly completes these big cycles of change. In other words, we can know someone really well when we & they are age 20-22, but by age 33, we can wake-up and wonder just who is this person laying in bed beside me??? because both you and they changed. (This last stuff is my own personal thesis, and I have no data nor studies to back it up. The other stuff above represents brain development research findings & understandings as of about 2 years ago.)

  39. Steve: Thanks for your comments. My main point (to which I dedicated most of my post) was that there is much to be gained, for people who choose to live in Mexico, by learning some Spanish. As a teacher, I spent many years working with children and young adults with a huge range of abilities. What I discovered was that nearly all, excepting a few with serious disabilities, could gain some level of competence in any subject matter, given motivation, time and adaptations that would allow them to use their particular learning strengths. I think this also holds for older adults. If I made any judgment, it was that foreigners who move to Mexico and live here are missing a huge chunk of living if they don't try to learn some basic Spanish and enjoy all the place has to offer. My opinion is that if they moved here because it's cheap and do not care to interact with their Mexican neighbors (and as I have witnessed in some cases, seriously misunderstand and/or actively disrespect the people and the culture), that's pretty sad. I think most all of them can learn enough Spanish, if they feel like it, to participate and understand a bit about their neighbors and the culture. Again, thanks for reading and contributing all of the interesting information.

  40. Amen!

    I think some adult learners who struggle to learn a new language, look at other people's seemingly easy experiences, and then slip into disappointment that they are not learning as quickly. This leads to some helpful conclusions:

    Keep Learing Spanish!
    If you are struggling, just realize that some people are pre-programmed to learn it easily and build their skills exponentially, while others just have to persistently plug & chug to make modest progress.

    Even slow progress is well worth the effort.

  41. Thanks Marc, for continuing this lively dialogue. I also want to thank Stephen Fry, for that very interesting analysis! I have to re-read it and think a bit more, but I must say--I've often wondered if I'd have been better in high school Spanish had I not been seated next to my future husband in class! I was much more interested in that seating arrangement than in learning a language I then thought I'd never need, (and I gave up on the husband many years ago!)

  42. Again, I applaud Steven's comments. I remember taking a course in which I was, admittedly, the least proficient in learning Spanish; but the class-mates were so competitive, with nonverbal "looks," that seemed to say, "You're so slow", that I'd come home angry! I soon quit the class, thinking that there were better venues for me.

    You, too, Marc are right--even slow progress is worth it.

    But when one is treated poorly in the process, it does become discouraging.


  43. Thanks everyone for contributing to the discussion. No post on this blog to date has generated such interest.

    I do think anyone without a disability can gain a sufficient command of Spanish to meet basic needs and have Spanish-speaking friends. The key is to find the right kind of learning environment. My two earlier posts on language learning (label: language learning) give a few other ideas I had about that topic.

  44. I'd be curious to know which approaches are taken by local Spanish-for-foreigners classes, especially for the very new speakers.

    I've seen some materials that expat friends were given and have heard a little bit about the classes they take. From that tiny and probably non-representative sample, it seems like the material has been the usual generic Spanish grammar and basic phrases. It has not, apparently, emphasized the stuff that people here would find immediately applicable.

    For example, "Excuse me, could you help me find a Phillips screwdriver?" is more immediately useful than "Rosa wears a dress every day, but she doesn't always wear a hat." One of the most effective ways to get people to keep learning is to give them highly relevant skills as soon as possible.

    It would also be great for local instructors or classes to cover manners early on, such as the difference between "yo quiero" and "quisiera."

  45. Yucatango, I agree 100%. Giving a language learners something that they can use and that is practical makes a enormous difference in their success.

  46. You are so right, Yucatango. I learn much faster with the immediate needs, than the obscure structure used by so many language learning approaches. Or even the immediate interests, (as opposed to needs.) And the "mind ones manners" effort you suggest--so very important!! ("Yo quiero" is usually, well, a mistake which does not create a good discourse. )

    I've often wished that if I had a teacher who would be able to be at my side as I attempt things like having the plumber install a new faucet, I'd learn so much faster.

    I've tried a few private instructors, and have only found one who would correct me as I proceed. I like that--for it does mean that some of my continuing errors just MIGHT be changed before becoming further entrenched. I would suggest that a prospective student ask the provider: Will you correct my errors? I'm still convinced that we often learn best in the parent-child model.

    But everyone, I'm sure, will not agree. We're all different.

  47. The real problem with not speaking any Spanish is that you miss all the sly double entendres that float by with almost any transaction in the mercado and the lively conversations of the people at the table next to you at LA68. After many years, I understand some, but not all of these and that's what keeps my quest going. And besides, I'd be lost without the Diario and Por Esto.

  48. Beryl, I agree with you absolutely. I catch some meanings, but still get left in the dark at times by all the slang and wordplay. That's one good reason to keep on learning and to chit-chat every chance you get.

    I read Diario daily...still haven't gotten into Por Esto. Remind me to ask you some time about it.


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