Poco a Poco

“Do you speak Spanish?” the Mexican taxi driver asked me, in Spanish, as he drove me and my groceries home from my weekly shopping spree the other day.

I replied in my still-broken Spanish to the effect that, Well, I’m working on it! Little by little – “poco a poco” — I’m learning a few more words every day. By the time I’m 100 years old, I told him, I’ll be fluent!

He laughed at me good-naturedly. “And how long will that be?” he asked me (in Spanish, of course).

“Veinte-ocho años (28 years),” I said.

We both laughed.

I’m trying to take my glacial progress in Spanish-language-acquisition with good humor. It’s not the destination of fluency that I’m after so much as the pleasure of the quotidian journey: being able to communicate, even in small ways, with my Mexican friends and neighbors better each day; and stretching my old, inelastic brain in new directions.

I was heartened recently when I saw an article in the New York Times (“resurfaced” from their archives from March 17, 2012, “to show you how learning a second language can improve how you think”) on “The Benefits of Bilingualism.” The article, by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, begins:

“Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.”

I was especially interested in that last point, about bilingualism’s effects on “the twilight years”:

“In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.”

(For the whole article, go to: http://nyti.ms/13aiddX.)

So I’m inching toward that hoped-for proficiency. It’s my goal, but I don’t let it paralyze me. It’s the direction I’m headed toward, but I still stop to smell the flowers along the way.

I take private lessons with a patient and good-humored Spanish teacher, a lovely young Mexican woman named Edith, once a week. Every evening I watch some Spanish-language TV and try to pay close attention. I carry flash-cards with me when I go for long walks. I attempt to pound those pesky verbos into my thick skull daily.

And I learn even more Spanish when I teach English to my little class of niños at Aprendizaje del Ingles on Wednesday afternoons.

Yesterday I brought with me to class a new puppet I’d just made, whom I’ve named Profesor Isadoro Globo (globo means balloon: his papier mâché head was formed over a balloon). He taught the kids about the “natural world” (mundo natural), and they learned the new words to them: “mountain,” “valley,” “lake,” “river,” “beach,” “sea,” “desert,” “jungle,” and “forest.”

In the process, of course, I learned the words those kids already knew: montaña, valle, lago, rio, playa, mar, desierto, selva, and bosque. It was an exchange. We had fun.

Newest puppet (teacher's assistant), Profesor Isadoro Globo
Newest puppet (teacher’s assistant), Profesor Isadoro Globo

Poco a poco.

18 thoughts on “Poco a Poco”

  1. Yesterday flying back to Mexico the woman sitting next to me did not have her bag under the seat in front of her and the Attendant told her to put it under. The woman just moved it a little but didn’t get it. I asked her if she spoke English and she said ‘No’. I then used my Neanderthal Spanish to explain that in an emergency she didn’t want her feet to get tangled in the bag straps. I used my hands for the word tangled. Then I said, “Lo siento, no hablo bien’. And using my powers of ESP, she said [I think] ‘It doesn’t matter, you explained it to me’, and she tucked her bag under the seat. 🙂

  2. After more than 40 years of living in Mexico part-time, I’m still struggling and am afraid that at this stage of my life, I’ll never become fluent in Spanish. So, I really know what you mean. I also know, though, that those of us who have such a strong tie to the culture, can communicate with great feeling and authenticity in spite of our flawed grammar, or lack thereof. We depend more on heart to heart communication than head to head. They read you and hear you, Bonnie, for who you are….

  3. Dear Bonnie….I gave up on Saduko and crossword puzzles a long time ago, so I am glad to hear learning a language can help keep my brain in good repair. Now…please tell me that learning to crochet can help too! XXXXX Pamela

    1. YES, Pamela dear, crocheting must be good for the brain because it’s calming. I crochet hats and scarves (for campo kids) every evening while watching the news. Helps relieve the stress of all the bad news we’ve been seeing. Much better than biting one’s nails… 🙂

  4. I just loved that post, Bonnie. Anything about language and/or the brain always appeals to me, and this was about both. I printed out an NYT article just today on “6 Potential Brain Benefits of Bilingual Education,” so I could read it on paper instead of a computer. I especially liked this line in your piece: “It’s not the destination of fluency that I’m after so much as the pleasure of the quotidian journey…” I can feel your essence in those words, and it makes me miss you.

    1. Thank you for this, Barb. Yes, I’m far, geographically, now; but in my mind and heart, we will always be close. And — better yet — you’ll just have to come to San Miguel for a visit. You’ll LOVE it! And your Spanish skills will go far. 🙂

  5. Next time we meet, we’ll have an English speaking day, then a French speaking day and even a Spanish speaking day if you teach me and we’ll have the long and interesting life we deserve. xxx ML

  6. Bravo Bonnie. I too keep on keeping on with my study of español here in Taos. It comes, but never as quickly as we like. You are surrounded now by the language, and I suspect that within 6 months you will have such an expanded vocabulary and a much better ear for it. It just happens.
    Here’s too bilingualism! TT

    1. Yes, Theresa, here’s to bilingualism! It might take me longer than six months, though, since I spend so much time alone. This is one of the (few) downsides to being an introvert. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Kay. I do too! He now sits in a living room chair here in my little lily pad (like he’s my roommate), and every time I look at him I smile. 🙂 Hope you’re doing well. — xx

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