Monday, March 19, 2012

Worldly possessions

Most people have in their homes a fair number of things that are very important to them, many irreplaceable. There are probably lots of old photographs, antiques passed down from grandparents, and baby's first shoes tucked away in a chest somewhere. A preschooler's first drawing might be in a box in a closet, and there could be childhood toys under a bed.

But when you decide to pack your entire life in a suitcase and move to another continent, those things generally don't make the cut for the luggage weight limit. For me, that was all left behind at my parents' house. It occurred to me recently how different the feel of a home is when it's filled with these kinds of personal things, or when everything is new (to you). That's not to say that I don't love my apartment and haven't enjoyed my almost two years living here. But I got to thinking recently about what physical, worldly possessions I have with me here in Spain that x number of euros can't replace. To be honest, there's not much. On one hand it's a good feeling, knowing that you're not tied down too much. But on the other, it's comforting to have some reminders of friends, family, and memories with you. Here are a few things I have with me here that money can't replace.
U.S. measuring cups. There's nothing nostalgic about these particular measuring cups (and spoons). It's a set my mom happened to pick up somewhere, just to have extras, not long before I came to Spain. But I do treasure them, because thanks to these I can easily follow American recipes without converting to the metric system. I can make my favorite sugar cookies that taste and smell like Christmas to me. I can make my mom's biscuits to go with Thanksgiving dinner. Losing these wouldn't be the end of the world, but the fact that these are in my kitchen drawer makes this apartment just a little more me.
My backpack. This backpack has been with me since the beginning of my globetrotting tendencies. I bought it in 2007 for my trip to Australia, and since then it has been to just about every country that I have. I remember clearly trying on nearly a dozen backpacks at REI, weighing the pros and cons of each, excitedly talking to the salesman about my upcoming trip. In the end I was extremely happy with my purchase, and five years I still am. Sure, if this were to disappear I could go get a new backpack, but I surely wouldn't find this exact one I've grown so attached to, and it wouldn't come with all the memories.
Childhood books. To find these I actually rummaged through boxes and bookshelves of family memorabilia. These are not just any copies, but the actual books that my mom read to my brothers and I when we were little. They're some of my favorites (especially The King, the Mice, and the Cheese), and I brought them with me to read with students. These have provided for some of my favorite classes ever. When she let me take these, my mom made me promise to take care of them because she wants to read them to grandchildren someday.
Grandpa's sweater. Last, and most special of all, is this sweater. It might look like any old thing you can get at JC Penny or El Corte Inglés, but it is far from that. My grandfather, my mom's dad, and the last of my grandparents, passed away last November. When I went home for Christmas a little over a month later I had the heartbreaking experience of going through my grandparents now-empty house to claim what memories I could. Upon entering the house, I made a beeline for the closet. My entire life I remember my grandpa in his sweaters. He had a few of them, but this gray one and a navy blue one my brother took were by far the most worn. We used to tease my grandpa during the summer that in a few short months "sweater weather" would be back and he could pull out his favorite wardrobe item again. I have this sweater here with me in Spain, and this, above everything else, feels like having a piece of home and family with me. I wear it nearly everyday when I'm at home, but it never leaves the apartment. It's far too precious for that.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Beyond the plateau of language learning

If you've ever learned a language by spending time in a foreign country, you will know what a roller-coaster of a process it is. If you've never had to use the language outside a classroom before, the start may be bumpy. Why didn't your teacher ever teach you helpful little words like ticket office, and why didn't you pay attention during the lesson on giving directions?

(Tangent: Why did my Spanish teachers tell me that it's "doblar a la izquierda" when in Spain it's unequivocally girar? Ugh.)

Once you get through that rough patch, you will absorb the language like a sponge, depending obviously on how much you immerse yourself into it. If you listen to and read a language all day, before you know it you will find new words and phrases sneaking their way into your speech.

The part that comes next is more challenging, and it's where I find myself now. There will be a point at which your vocabulary and grammar will be sufficient to communicate nearly anything you want to. There will still be plenty you don't know, but using what you do know you can describe your way around the gaps in your knowledge. The phrases you put together might not be quite how a native speaker would say something, but you easily get your point across. If any of the above applies to you, congratulations, you've reached the language learning plateau.

In order to improve from this plateau, you need to make a concerted effort to fill in those gaps, take every opportunity to listen to native speakers and read in the language. This is my latest project, which I am going about in a variety of ways.

First, and I am ashamed to admit I haven't done this until now, I am reading in Spanish. Not just skimming through a newspaper each morning, but tackling a book.
I admit, I'm slightly cheating. I've read this in English (My Sister's Keeper) and know the story, but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty for me to learn in reading it in Spanish. It's a slower process, as would be expected, because I want to look up every single word I don't know or even have doubts about. Because I know the story, I can stop more and reflect on the specific language used. What phrases are used in more colloquial situations, and which in more formal? I find structures I've never heard before and suddenly have a new (more native!) way to say something.

Second, writing down all new vocabulary I come across, and then actually studying it! This notebook and my pocket dictionary come with me everywhere.
Third, every few days a couple words get put on this board in my entry way so I see them all the time.
The fourth, and most helpful step in pushing my Spanish beyond the plateau? Let's just say I've found my own personal human dictionary. But more on that later :)