It is day one of the 13th Annual Linguistic Symposium in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. The sun is fiercely hot, and it is a dry 32 degrees. The colors are vibrant, the people are hospitable and jolly, and the palm trees lie still against a bright blue cloudless sky as heat permeates the poolside cafe from which I write. The only thing missing, it seems, is my fluency in Spanish, which right now I’d pay any amount of pesos to acquire.
Like most of us language teachers, I am keenly interested in how language is acquired and how I can best advise my students or myself for that matter, about how to best learn a language. I grew up learning French as mandated in Ontario, from Kindergarten up until a Grade 13 (OAC) level, yet still had trouble speaking the language when put to the test in real-time situations. Incidentally, when I landed in Portugal for a year to teach English, I learned Portuguese fairly rapidly as small town life dictated that my next meal depended on my ability to mime and piece together the language as best I could. Presently, I am learning Spanish and I chose to apply to attend a conference in Spanish to further broaden my very basic fundamental knowledge of the language. After having taken a Beginner 1 Spanish Course through our own UBC Continuing Studies, and enrolling in Beginner 2 post-trip, I decided to pack away my Soleado study book, my basic Spanish dictionary and translator phone app, and see how I would fare with just what I know and preach to my own students about language learning.
Thus far, I have successfully found my way from the airport to the hotel in Spanish, have figured out how to call Canada in Spanish, and have actually acquired a few amigos with my limited Spanish also. Informally, we were all able to discuss our work lives, our marital situations, whether or not we had children, and we have even discussed cultural differences – and in this group only one of us was fluent in English, two in Portuguese, one in Spanish and one in French. Amazing how this works. I have found that my basic knowledge of French and Portuguese and Latin root words has worked incredibly as substitutes when I don’t know a particular word. And I feel particularly blessed to have Latin root word fundamentals in my language tool kit as I realize most students we see at ELI speak languages that do not have such common ground, thus already placing me at a distinct advantage to speed up my learning curve. And even then, I am frustrated at times.
This is day one, and already I have laughed so hard I feared I might be asked to leave the premises. Why? I was able to laugh at myself. I recounted to our small group my experience of arriving in Santiago de Cuba from Havana, on a primarily Cuban locals plane. After disembarking the plane, and before entering the Santiago airport, a lady was informally pouring water from a drinking bottle onto the hands of passengers. Thinking this was optional, and eager to get my bag, I passed by the lineup. Much to my dismay, I was called back – “Senhora, Senhora”…. and I apprehensively held the tablespoon of water allocated to me in one hand. Watching a few people rub their hands together and make the sign of the father, son and holy ghost, I quietly disposed of the water down the side of my pants, assuming it was a religious custom. Once inside at the baggage carousel, in my broken Spanish, I asked a lady about the water and if it was ceremonial. Laughing, she said no, the water was “para claro” and was “clorinado”. Oh yes, chlorinated water to stop the spread of cholera which has been appearing intermittently across Cuba…. and I apparently felt I could bypass the line and take my chances.
Thus far, I can surmise that what I have told my own students over the past few years of teaching English, in my Spanish immersion experience in Cuba, is verifiably true:
- Immerse yourself completely. Abandon your first language entirely and try, try and try again in your second language.
- Mimes and root words are completely acceptable. So are pictographs, pointing and acting out scenarios.
- Do not under any circumstances use a translator or dictionary, unless the situation can be deemed an emergency. Being completely immersed in a situation, and not removing oneself to think or check in a second language, lends itself to more meaningful learning experiences.
- Listen to the language around you. Pick up tone, intonation and commonly used phrases. Don’t be afraid to speak with gusto and a pronounced accent.
- Laugh at yourself, be light, and don’t take things too seriously. A smile and an attempt to try seems to go a very long way.
- Ask questions. Ask for words and language. Ask why. Most people are thrilled to be asked and happy to answer.
My Type-A personality has taken a serious backseat here, and even in the planning stages, it was becoming very obvious that I was going to have to relax a bit and succumb to the Cuban manner of planning and way of life. Two days before departure, my hotel room was spontaneously cancelled and I was without a place to stay. Inconveniently, only two carriers, WestJet and Air Canada, fly to Cuba. Each have particular days designated for arrivals and departures. Nobody flies directly to Santiago de Cuba, where the conference is held, on the opposite end of the island from Havana. Internal flights are through Cubana and must be booked online, and not through a travel agent, and do not necessarily coordinate with international flight times. Availability is limited. Visas and passport requirements are quite unclear, though when I did renew my passport, which was valid for a future four months, I was told that Cuba is the only country in the world not requiring validity of 6 months or more. Here, one month will suffice. Conference fees were quoted in Euros and Cuban Convertible pesos, though the conversion seemed to make no sense. There was no paying online – bank transfer only, and to an account that didn’t quite match the conference name. By all accounts I felt vulnerable to this strange and seemingly insecure system of booking, but I realized when I got here that most people experienced similar difficulties, if not more, and we were all grateful just to be here.
The aforementioned pre-departure rigamarole was essential in preparing me for immersion in a second language. It is clear to me that the need for perfection must be abandoned to begin the learning process.
The 13th Annual Linguistic Symposium opened with much fanfare. We were all gratefully received for supporting the economy in Santiago de Cuba post hurricane Sandy. Unbeknownst to most of us, the original venue, a theatre in central Santiago de Cuba, had been completely destroyed, thus having to resort to a hotel for the Symposium to be held. The Centro Linguistico in Santiago de Cuba was founded by Eloina Miyares Bermudez and her partner Vitelio Ruiz Hernandez, and at present their son Leonel Ruiz Miyares now operates the privately funded centre and organizes the conference. Delegates and presenters from over 82 countries were present, with a total population of just over 200 being represented. Some countries in attendance were Columbia, France, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Jamaica and Saudi Arabia, just to name a few.
The opening speech, delivered by Professor Esther Forgas of the University of Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain, was delivered in Spanish with English translation transposed on an overhead projector. As a learner, this was an excellent way for me to follow the audio, but read the English translation, using words I knew as place markers. Forgas argues that using a historical perspective of the origins of the Spanish language, and following the thread of Cuban Spanish and why it is unique, in addition to imparting the historical importance and knowledge unto students, will allow students to better understand, appreciate and preserve the Cuban Spanish language through practice. The speech was inspirational and patriotic, quoting such famous political figures as Jose Marti, who lamented the significant changes in the language, and the loss of the original formation of the language.
Dr Michael Robb, of University of Canterbury, in Christchurch New Zealand, was another keynote speaker. He presented on Stuttering in Bilingual Speakers in L1 and L2. Using his students and various studies as support, he examined studies that found stuttering frequency higher in L1, or L2, or as being equal between languages. Interestingly, he was able to striate the types of words used , content and function words, and whether children or adults were more likely to stutter on each. He was also able to determine in which language, L1 or L2, which errors were more likely to occur. Initially, it was surmised that an L2 pattern would be similar to that of a child vs. an adult, with most errors being function words. He found however that this was not the case, indicating that L2 is not learned as a child would learn L1, but instead indicating an entirely different pattern.
Professor Anton Nijholt and Dr. Randy Klaassen, of University de Twente, in Twente, Belgium, presented on Digital Life Coaching, and the importance of technology in shaping our lives linguistically and medically.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating presentations I attended was given by Dr. Kathleen Wermke of the University of Wurzburg, Germany. She presented on early precursors to language in typically developing infants vs. infants at risk for language impairment. Using many of her own studies comparing infants being raised in different L1s, she was able to record and illustrate the shape of infant cries, demonstrating that they are shaped directly to mimic the language into which the infant is born. For example, infants in particular languages may cry with rising or falling intonations, which are indicative of their L1s. One particular rural tribe was studied, and was well known for their “clicks” in their speech. Babies were shown to acquire this “clicking” at birth, as demonstrated in their cries. Essentially, the study illustrates that much of our language is learned in utero, and passively, as we develop in the early stages of infancy.
Additionally, I attended presentations on Extended Reading and IVA, Language and Gender, Heritage Languages in the Classroom, Phrasal Verbs, Raising Bilingual Children, and Reading and Dyslexia, to name a few.
The conference provided me with a much needed challenge to listen and comprehend in a full immersion Spanish context.
At present, I have had much difficulty creating a system that allows me to switch from one language to another. Essentially, I am speaking either English, or “everything else” which is a mix of French, Portuguese and Spanish. I am surprised and I suppose also a bit disappointed that I wasn’t able to find a way to intrinsically categorize language and smoothly switch from one to another. Instead, the “everything else” category seems to be a pool of desperation from which I select any word and try to find a way to fit it into my speech contextually. I have found that once I am on a “Spanish run”, as I call it, speaking Spanish for longer periods of time, I am greatly affected by other languages surrounding me. Yes, I verily believe that immersion in L2, full immersion, has allowed me, or even has forced me, to ascend the learning curve at great speed. Any diversion back to L1, or even other partial L2s, has caused me notable distress, lessened speed and accuracy, and categorization difficulties, resulting in less fluency and confidence.
As a closing point, I believe this ties in directly with the English Only policy we have at ELI. I have always supported the policy, but not with as much intent or passion as I will now. Full immersion in L2 is essential to create focus and meaningful language learning experiences, especially when we know that most students will speak in their native tongue later once they depart the ELI. My own experience has carved into me the importance of supporting this policy and defending it as an essential part of student experience here at the English Language Institute at the University of British Columbia.
I am most incredibly grateful to the ELI and our Professional Development funding for supporting me in my ongoing quest to acquire Spanish, and eventually become fluent (fingers crossed!) in the language. The depth of the cultural experience, the linguistic applications and the personal growth that I experienced have taught me lessons that have had an immediate impact upon my classroom practice and teaching rapport with my fellow staff and students.
And no amount of pesos, or Cuban Convertible Pesos, could ever hope to replace that.
*As a brief sidenote, I was fortunate enough to be provided with two volumes of Academic Papers (primarily in Spanish) which are on the top shelf of my desk. I have also left the Symposium itinerary with them – please feel free to have a look and explore.