Destinos’ Children

Destinos’ Children

Our two god-granddaughters are learning Spanish in school. Like mine, Printha’s formal course began in sixth grade, but Adeline started much earlier, in fourth. It was immediately apparent they will acquire the language individually, idiosyncratically. Some of this may be down to their respective ages at introduction to Spanish. I am not current on linguistic research with respect to language learning, but some capacity is lost as children get older: the ‘window’ may close for many/most at puberty. But that doesn’t explain all of what I am noticing. They are very different girls, even down to the way they learn, and learning to speak Spanish has made the distinctions sharp.

Bruce and I have been playing with the idea of going to Puerto Rico to live for an extended period. We have grown to love the island, its people, and culture over our many visits, especially appreciating daily life in out-of-the way small towns and communities. We have two projects in mind. Over the years we have been documenting building styles unique to the island, rather haphazardly, and want to research our observations and ideas more rigorously, with more granularity and an historical perspective. There might be a book in it, coffee table or otherwise; we will see where the project takes us. Besides that interest, I’d like to know my family history more completely, and a site-based genealogy study is compelling. Fluency in Spanish is almost certainly called for to accomplish either of these aims. Bruce’s Spanish improves with each visit (mine too!), but we know a more formal approach is necessary, for both of us.

A long time ago we discovered the Annenberg Foundation’s course in Spanish (for English speakers), called Destinos. Destinos is a video series (with audio, textbook, and workbook supplements), that uses narrative form to engage the student. And it does. The telenovela is bingeworthy! The story is told in fifty-two episodes, and takes the viewer/student across the globe to a multitude of Spanish-speaking countries, weaving in histories and cultures. The course relies heavily on immersion, as the dialogue between characters is untranslated, leaving the student to infer meaning from context, body language, and social/human understandings. There is more direct instruction too, as both the narrator and main character Raquel speak directly to the viewer. The narrator speaks in both Spanish and English, explaining the arc of each episode, and translating key words and concepts. Raquel speaks only in Spanish, at the end of each episode, asking questions of the viewer that also appear on the screen (as do the answers). These three approaches together are very effective, and just as important, the story is a wonderful hook. You (as the viewer) want to – have to! – come back, to find out what happens next. Even so, Bruce and I never finished the series our first time through. Never enough time …

But now we are watching it again with the girls, as we watch them watch it. The different ways they are learning fascinate me. Printha is analytical and visual, using pattern recognition, logic, and reasoning to identify cognates and language structure, comparing Spanish with English. She is focused on language, as much as she is the story. Adeline in contrast, is intuitive, following the story, inferring; she is people sensitive, socially aware, and an aural learner – she has a great accent when prompted to pronounce her words con acento apropriado. Printha is also happy with the pedagogy, with the method of the educators; she is comfortable not understanding everything, and doing her thing She is patient when her understanding advances beyond the lesson or beyond Adeline’s. But Adeline is constantly fidgeting – I wonder, is she a haptic learner? – and frustrated by the Spanish-only character talk. She needs to know everything that is said, because she doesn’t want to miss a clue that explains the story. Fro the same reason she is bored with any repetition and rote learning that doesn’t move the story forward. My favorite thing: they both can roll their r’s!

I am wondering what approach to take with Adeline. Should I explain what is being said when characters talk to each other? Or will that ruin either of their learning experiences within the series framework? I also have to deal with their competitiveness. They both want to be the first to answer Raquel’s questions, Jeopardy-style, but once an answer is announced it frustrates and ruins the other’s experience and learning. An approach I will try: I’ll let them alternate responses (with no affirmation or comment from me), and have the non-answerer validate, or correct the other’s answer. In this way they can each come to their own understanding and conclusions, and get credit for independently knowing.

Bruce as a learner is more like Adeline in most ways, except that he is not uncomfortable with being in the dark when characters speak with each other. Perhaps he is just more experienced with implied meanings, and understanding from context. I find myself absorbing everything so fluidly, so easily, I am hopeful this makes for more fluent, default, effortless speaking in Spanish, that I will be translating in my head less and less often.

The real magic for me, though, is not as a teacher but as a fellow traveler, a compadre, sharing with them the very different world Spanish makes. Despite some structural similarities and common word origins, Spanish is a language unlike English. It is nuanced, holding more ambiguity, multiplicities, inferences, and layers, which differently define a richer, more symbolic, insightful, and cleverly humorous cosmos. Spanish lends itself so easily to poetry, really I think it is, in itself, a poetic language. I do so look forward to experiencing understandings and perspectives with them that don’t – will not – translate directly, cleanly, without significant loss. Shall I take them to Puerto Rico? The thought takes my breath away, it captures and embraces me with all the possibilities of claiming and living my heritage – my other, preferred world – and gifting it to the three of them.


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