Folks in Chile are reputed to speak Spanish. No one else in the Spanish speaking world agrees with this assessment but the legend persists. Chilean Spanish is, in fact, very fast with lots of dropped sounds. I struggle with Spanish when it’s spoken slowly, clearly and repeated. Chilean Spanish is very difficult. Of course, it’s their country and their language and they can speak it as they please. I’ll keep trying.
One might think I’d be making rapid progress but that assumes that I am “immersed” in Spanish speaking culture. I certainly hear more Spanish than in Winston-Salem but I haven’t been having conversations, by and large. I get around and can transact business and I am, no doubt, getting better. But I am in a far different situation than my students. The students are in homestays where they are living with a person or persons who may well only speak Spanish. They are also taking 1-4 classes in Spanish and interacting with Chilean students. I, on the other hand, teach only American students, in English. My colleague in the office next to me is an Englishman. I don’t actually ever HAVE to speak Spanish. I try my best but, as much as I may love adventure, I freeze up when faced with the prospect of having an actual conversation.
It doesn’t help that far more people in Santiago speak English than I was led to believe. Even when I manage to say something that is, I think, correct, they hear the accent and switch to English. I need to make them turn back to their native tongue.
Over the weekend, I had a chance to meet a number of amateur astronomers at a local observatory. One of the men I had been in email conversation with for months and I thought he spoke English. I had written him in Spanish and he had replied in excellent English. It turns out that both of us read and write our second languages reasonably well but have trouble speaking or hearing it. He gave me a tour of the facilities with us using both English and Spanish as needed. I understood him rather less well than I thought which cost me when it came time to pay the dues. He is the fourth person I’ve encountered who, after weeks or months of email in English, turn out not to speak English much at all. Conversely, I also have several friends who speak a second language but can’t read or write it.
I have concluded, with little data and perhaps less thought, that there aren’t many people who are equally adept reading and speaking a second language. If you’re the bookish, academic type and you learn your language from a class and/or book, you probably read and write well but don’t speak it well. On the other hand, if you learn the language because you lived somewhere that speaks that language, you probably picked up the spoken language while being largely illiterate in that language.
This conclusion is almost certainly based on sample size. I don’t interact with all that many people who claim a second language. I’m sure a great many people are equally adept at reading and speaking their second (or third or fourth…) language. But it is a question that interests me and I’d like to figure out a way to test my idea.
I do know that I do better when the Spanish is spoken clearly and slowly. Folk songs do a good job. We heard this one today in the students’ class. It’s a sad, angry song about a terrible slaughter (The Siege of Santa Maria de Iquique in 1907) but I was able to follow it pretty well. It helps that there is a chorus. It helps that righteous anger transcends language.
On the other hand, the guys selling stuff in the metro stations? They speak slowly and say the same thing over and over and over. Not to mention that the context is clear. And, yet, I have no idea what the hell those guys are saying.