Sunday, August 31, 2008

Getting Better

I had a good week after a scary start with the difficult tango class. First, I have to say that I am feeling very comfortable being here. My Spanish is functional, though at times it fails me and I can't hear what people are saying to me, but in general, it is working fine, and I am able to communicate, and I understand everything at the supermarket now!

I am enjoying my conversation exchanges and my Italian and Arabic classes. Italian is very easy for me because this is the third time I have taken beginning Italian. But in this class the teacher speaks only Italian (which I like). Actually, it kind of puts me at a little advantage, unlike in my Arabic class where there is a lot of Spanish spoken and I get lost easily. Both classes are really fun though, and the other students are interesting. I enjoy just sitting in the class and watching them.

Tango was scary for me this week. I took another class on Tuesday that the guy at the tango school recommended, saying it was a little more basic. It was still hard, but it was better. I got nervous when I had to dance with partners, but the three women I danced with were very kind and helpful and forgiving when I made mistakes. But what happened is that my fear motivated me to do something about the fact that I seem to be a very slow tango learner.

First, I found some videos on You Tube that are tango lessons. I also watched other videos of people dancing. I think it is good to see what the dance is supposed to look like. I bought some tango instruction videos and watched them and practiced a little in my living room. I contacted my private tango teacher and set up some lessons. We had to stop because both of us had the flu. Dancing with him is very good because he gives me correction every time I make a mistake. Sometimes it is frustrating, but I am learning a lot. And finally, I called a friend and asked him if he wanted to go to a class with me. We are going this afternoon. Then we can practice what we learned together in my living room.

I know the important thing for learning something is practice. It is the hardest thing for me to do. With language, if I am not living in the country where the language is spoken, I hardly practice. Even here, where I am trying to become fluent in Spanish, I am still hesitant to speak Spanish as much as I could. With tango, when I was studying in San Francisco, I never practiced at home. But now, because I feel so nervous about dancing with other people in class, and because the level of the classes are more difficult, I am motivated to practice. I practice in some way every day now.

It's true what they say, "practice makes perfect". I don't know if I will ever be perfect in Spanish or in tango, but I know that if I practice, I will get better.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A New Challenge

Yesterday I had my first tango class. Argentine tango is a beautiful dance. Here is a clip from a movie called "The Tango Lesson". It features one of my favorite tango songs called "Libertango" by one of the most famous tango composers, Astor Piazolla. One of the musicians is Yo Yo Ma. It is a beautiful song, a beautiful clip and I hope you can see how beautiful tango is.

Unfortunately, my tango lesson yesterday was not as beautiful nor as romantic as that. It was a horrible experience. The class was too difficult for me and I was super nervous. It was not like a language class where I could sit in the back and hope the teacher wouldn't see me, I actually had to dance with people, and as a leader, I was supposed to be in control. I had to lead my partner around the dance floor, communicate to her with my body and make sure I didn't bump into the other students.

Finally after about 75 minutes of torture, I left the class. I asked if they could recommend some other classes that were easier, and I am going back to try a different teacher today.

There are some important lessons here for me both as a teacher and as a student. I was a new student in the class, and I think the other students had all taken the class before. I'm not sure. The teacher never welcomed me to the class. He just told everyone, "dance", and then he said, "change partners". The first time he spoke to me, he asked me if I spoke Spanish, and then he offered me some correction. After that, he ignored me and helped the better dancers in the class. It was obvious that I was struggling, but neither the teacher or his assistant came over and tried to help me out.

I understand now how important it is to help a student feel welcome in the class. Sometimes I have students who come to my class after the class has been meeting for weeks, or months. All of the students know each other and feel comfortable with each other, and for new students it can be very intimidating. Sometimes I don't want to stop what I am doing to welcome the new student, but I put my students into groups and have them work together and hope that the other students will help the new student feel welcome. It is kind of like my teacher telling us to "dance". The teacher needs to take responsibility for people's comfort, and I need to make sure the new student feels comfortable.

The other thing I learned is that it is not possible to do something that is too far above your level. This class was way too diffcult for me. You can see from the video that tango has some very complicated steps. There are other things that are just as complicated that you can't see, for example how you hold your partner, how you communicate to your partner where you are going, etc.... I am still at the basic level, even though I have been taking tango classes off and on for two years. I might be in a level 2 tango, when yesterday's class was like level 8. I can't jump that high.

As a learner, this is a good lesson for me to find a place where I feel comfortable, but also I am going to learn about persistence. I really want to learn how to dance tango. When I watch tango videos I feel the passion of the dance and I want to be able to do that myself. But the only way to do that is to keep going and not give up. I might find some classes are too difficult. I might find some partners that are difficult to dance with, but this is part of my dream and I don't want to give it up.

Now it's time to get ready for class.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Finding Ways to Practice Spanish

I've been here 3 weeks already and I am beginning to settle in and feel more comfortable. One of my reasons for being here is to experience what it is like to live in another culture and speak another language. I also hope that by doing that, I will become more fluent in Spanish, a language I first studied over 30 years ago!

My Spanish is pretty good, not great, but it is good enough for me to be able to survive. My problem is confidence. When I get into situations where I make mistakes I feel shy about going back and trying again, but I am learning. Fortunately for me, one of the scariest places for me, the supermarket, is also a place that I need to go to alot. In fact, I have been going to the supermarket almost every day. I am beginning to learn the different questions that they ask me at the cashier and beginning to feel less nervous about answering those questions and dealing with the money. Each time I go back now, I feel more confident and less scared.

But I have done some things that are helping me feel more comfortable. One of them was putting an advertisement on Craigslist for a conversation exchange partner. My ad said I was looking for someone who wanted to practice English in exchange for speaking Spanish with me. My idea was that we would meet for about an hour and spend half the time speaking English and half the time speaking Spanish. I got about 5 or 6 responses to my ad and so far have met two people. Both times we spoke more English than Spanish, but I was glad to be able to meet people from Argentina and I was able to ask them questions about things that were confusing me. I hope that the next time we meet I will have more of an opportunity to speak Spanish, and I know that if I want that to happen, I need to just do it.

From one of my conversation partners I found out about a kind of music that is popular here called cumbia. Cumbia in Argentina is a little different from cumbia in other parts of Latin America. I wanted to find out more about it and went to You Tube to find some videos. I watched some music videos and found the lyrics and read along with the music. From there I found some other videos, short documentaries and interviews with people. You Tube is a good place for me to practice listening to Argentine Spanish, and also I can read comments that people post and learn some of the vocabulary that is special to Argentina.

One of my conversation partners recommended a TV program called Patito Feo - it means Ugly Duckling in English. It is a program for teenagers, but it is interesting and it is a good place to learn vocabulary. I found a website on the internet and was able to learn a little about the show and the characters. Now I try to watch that and the news every day for listening practice.

Finally, maybe one of the best things I am doing is taking language classes. I am not taking Spanish classes though (I have a private Spanish lesson once a week). I will be studying Arabic and Italian while I am here. My idea was that if I took another Spanish class (I did that last year), I would be in class with other Americans or other English speakers, but if I take another language class, I will be in class with Argentines. Today was my first Arabic class. There are 12 students in the class. All of them except me are Spanish speakers. Even the teacher, who is originally from Syria, speaks Spanish fluently. There was a lot of Spanish spoken in class, and I also spoke Spanish in class. Of course we were studying Arabic, but there was so much discussion in Spanish I felt like I was in a Spanish class! It was great. The conversation was fast and natural and I think this class will be a good place for me to meet people to talk to outside of class. We might even have some field trips, or go to movies or restaurants together, and that will give me more opportunities to talk to people.

Finding ways to practice Spanish has helped me to feel more comfortable here. When I am successful communicating with people I feel better about my Spanish and it encourages me to keep doing it. When I have problems communicating, I try to ask someone to explain what happened. I learned that when I went to a supermarket called Dia, they asked me if I wanted a bag because that supermarket charges money for bags. Now I know that when I go to Dia they are going to ask me if I want a bag.

I know I will continue to have challenges and I know I will make more mistakes, and maybe even be embarrassed, but, I really like the way they speak Spanish here and I want to be able to communicate better with people, so I am not going to let small failures stop me. Maybe I can't do everything in Spanish and spend 24 hours speaking, reading, writing, thinking and dreaming in Spanish, but if I do one or two things every day, after 5 months I think I will see a big improvement in my ability to speak Spanish. At least I hope so.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Culture Shock

It didn't take long for me to begin experiencing the symptoms of culture shock. I knew I was in culture shock when I felt myself being negative about everything around me. Last year, on my first trip here, it took me almost a month to begin getting negative. At that time I just loved everything about Buenos Aires and didn't see any of the problems.

This time I started to see the problems right away - the pollution, dirty streets, too many people, problems communicating, etc. I think it is good to know that what I am experiencing is culture shock. Now that I know what is happening to me, I can try to find ways to make myself feel better.

Culture shock is a sign of growth. It means that I am out of my zone of comfort and in a situation where I am unfamiliar, and need to find a way to adjust and therefore, grow. Because I have problems understanding what the cashiers at the supermarket say to me, I am afraid to go to the supermarket. But today when I went to the supermarket and the cashier said something I didn't understand and had to point to show me he was asking if I wanted a bag, I realized what I can do the next time. My Spanish is good enough that I can tell people I don't understand and ask them to explain things to me. When I have done that, people have been very nice. When the cashier said something that I didn't understand, after I understood what he was asking, I should have asked him, "what did you say to me?" so that the next time I WOULD understand. I realized that part of my problem is that I want to fit in here, but by trying to fit in I am afraid to let people know that I am not a native Spanish speaker. That is stupid. I should let them know that I am trying to learn. I think they will be more impressed with that than by someone pretending to speak Spanish when they don't really.

So from now on I am going to try this new strategy of asking people to repeat things so that I can learn them. I need to get a little notebook that I can carry with me so I can take it to places like the produce market and write down the names of fruit and vegetables that I learn. I could ask my Spanish teacher to teach me things, but it is better in this case if I just take advantage of the many natural language learning situations that I can find on the street.

So for now, my culture shock is at a medium level. I don't feel terrible, but I don't feel great either. I want to see if I can adjust my attitude and also make some changes in the way that I interact with people and see what effect that will have on how I feel.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Only Thing to Fear is Fear

I'm not sure which American president said that ("the only thing to fear is fear itself") or what he was referring to, but when it comes to learning a new language, I think fear is a big thing. It is what keeps me from using the language because I am afraid of making mistakes, afraid of being embarrassed, afraid of looking stupid, etc., but it is when I use the language and make mistakes that I learn something new. What am I so afraid of?

So far I have had different experiences here, some good, some bad, but not terrible, and certainly none of them were in any way dangerous for me - my life was never at risk. I guess what I am saying is if I make a mistake, I will live through it. The best thing to do is to have an attitude that includes the ability to accept the fact that I am not perfect and I WILL make mistakes. Combine that with a strong desire to learn, and a need to use the language, and I think in 5 months I will see the kind of improvement that I want in my ability to speak Spanish.

I am still at a point where I might understand anywhere from 50-90% of an interaction with people. Sometimes I understand less, sometimes nothing. But when I don't understand, often it is because the cultural differences are contributing. Something like asking if I am the final consumer at the supermarket, for example - I understood the question, but I didn't know what it meant.

The past few days I have been sick with the flu and have not been very adventurous. After I am feeling better I am going to try to get back out there and put myself in situations again and again until I feel comfortable. I hope to be able to stop being afraid.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don't...

I found a Disco around the block. Disco is not what you think. It is a supermarket. It's a little expensive, but I like some of the things they have.

Yesterday I walked past and saw that it was not crowded. Last year when I went to a Disco, the line was so long and moved so slowly. But since it wasn't crowded, I went in and picked up a few things.

When I got to the cashier, she asked me in Spanish, "usted es el consumidor final?" - I didn't understand what that meant, and said, "eh?" with a puzzled look on my face. She responded in Spanish, "if you don't know what the question means, it doesn't apply to you". I breathed a sigh of relief, but wanted to learn, so I asked her what that meant. She explained that if I was buying products to sell again in a little store or something, they would not charge me tax, but if I was buying products for myself I had to pay tax.

When I left, I was very satisfied with the exchange. I thought it was good that I was able to hear what she said, and the fact that I didn't understand wasn't about the language but it was a cultural thing. I also thought it was good that I was able to ask her what it meant, and that she was so kind in explaining.

Today I went out to get some empanadas, but the empanada place across the street was closed, so I went back to the Disco to see what I could find.

I picked up a few items, including three empanadas and went to find a place to check out. I saw the express lanes didn't have many people and went and stood in line. I didn't see that there were three cashiers and one of them was available. She called to me and I went to her register.

As I approached, I thought she was going to ask me if I was the "consumidor final". Instead, she said, "effectivo?" It kind of caught me off guard - not what I was expecting. I hesitated, and then she said in English, "cash?". I knew what effectivo meant, and wondered why she automatically assumed I didn't speak Spanish.

She rang up my items and the total was 105.93 pesos. I gave her 110 pesos and then pulled out the change in my pocket thinking I could find the 3 centavos so that I wouldn't end up with a lot of change. I had a few 25 centavo coins, and some 10 centavo coins, but no 1 centavo coins (I don't think they even exist). I said in Spanish, "I don't have 3 centavos". As I was about to put the change away, she grabbed three 25 centavo coins and two 10 centavo coins (total 95 centavos). She seemed a little frustrated with me, but I just laughed. I was confused by the money, especially all of these different coins.

She then finished bagging and gave me my receipt with a bunch of coupons and mumbled something to me that I did not understand. She pointed down to the floor. I thought she was pointing to the wad of papers she just gave me and held out my hand. She said no and sighed, and pointed down again. I picked up my basket, thinking that was what she wanted (but not knowing why). She sighed again and came around to the front of her register and showed me that my other bags were in a hole in front of her station. I didn't see her put them there. Again I laughed, but she just rolled her eyes and made me feel like I was really stupid.

Ok, so two days, two different cashiers, two different experiences. Now I know that when I go to the express lane, my bags will end up down at my knees and I have to bend down and pick them up.

This is all a learning experience and these little mistakes have nothing to do with me or my ability to speak Spanish. So far, most of the confusion has been about the fact that they do things differerently here than they do at home. Sometimes I understand, and sometimes I don't.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

First Day

It's after midnight and I've taken two naps since I arrived, but now I can't sleep. I can see a clock on my computer showing the time in San Francisco. It's 9:10 there. Maybe I need to stay up a little longer before I can go back to sleep.

Today was not a bad day, but it was a little stressful. Getting from the airport to my apartment didn't go as I had planned, but I made it. After that, I started noticing the fear and hesitation I have that stops me from doing things that I want or have to do.

The first time I noticed it was when I went to eat lunch. I went to a restaurant I had looked into many times, but I always felt intimidated by it. Today I saw a delicious looking pizza on the menu and the restaurant was not crowded, so I just took a deep breath and went inside. I found it to be like any other restaurant. The server brought me a menu and took my order. She was very nice, even though I felt very uncomfortable. Why was I uncomfortable? It is my first day back here after one year. I need some time to get used to the language, especially the language that they speak here, the special Argentine accent, the vocabulary, the speed, etc.

But what I realize is that each time I put myself into a situation, even if it is uncomfortable, I learn something. For example, today I kind of messed up after I asked for the check. The server and another guy came to my table. I had not finished my lunch, but was full. The 2nd guy said, "la retiro?", which at first I thought he was asking me if I wanted to take it home. It was just an impulse because that is what they usually ask in the US. I said no. But then I remembered that I understood what that meant and said yes. Now I think I will remember that here they always ask if they can clear your table, but I don't think they ever ask if you want to take unfinished food home.

I hope that I will gain more confidence so that I can put myself into more situations where I have to talk to people. I notice how I avoid asking questions in shops because I am not sure exactly what to say, but if I do talk to clerks in shops, or servers in restaurants, they are always nice and often they tell me how good my Spanish is.

Overall, today was not a bad day. I bought a cell phone, went out for lunch, changed some money and went to the supermarket. In one day I am pretty settled. Now tomorrow, I am going to go to the gym and try to get a membership. I have no idea what to say, but I am going to do my best.