Greene: Relearning Spanish

Nov 17, 2017

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. So I had my doubts about refreshing my rusty and uneven Spanish - which I needed for a recent solo trip to Mexico. But there are a host of new language acquisition strategies that replace rote memorization with comprehension.

Express Fluency, a language school based in Brattleboro that Elissa McLean started in 2014, uses a technique called Teaching with Comprehensible Input, or TCI.

McLean says, “When we understand the messages we hear, the brain goes to work decoding without us working to memorize, or learn rules. It’s as if someone wants to ride a bike and you had them memorize a diagram of all its parts; they’d know a lot about a bike but still not be able to ride one. This way is like giving them the experience of riding. It’s a paradigm shift. People start speaking, after they’ve received large helpings of comprehensible language.”

I can attest that starting from the students’ enthusiasms and need for self-expression makes learning much easier. Our classes are a hilarious mix of talking, acting things out, and looking up words. In fact, for me, brushing up on Spanish has been like building an addition onto my brain that I get to furnish every week.

And there are delightful surprises, like the word for retired, which in English smacks of wallflower withdrawal. In Spanish it’s jubilado, from the same Latin root as jubilation. And since most of my fellow classmates are in their 60’s and 70’s, many are jubilantly retired, planning trips, surfing, enjoying family, and reveling in their freedom.

I won’t soon forget that a head of garlic is called literally una cabesa de ajo. But in Spanish the cloves are dientes or teeth.

And relearning Spanish brings great memories rushing back when I recall a word I’ve forgotten. This is a gift of ageing. If anything, relearning Spanish in my 60’s has been more fun - and faster - than any other language foray of my life.

One more example.

The Spanish word for grasshopper is saltamonte. But in Mexico, the synonym is chapoline, a word that comes from Nahuatl, which means “insect that bounces like a ball”. In Mexico, I declined a taste from a bushel basket on the street, fearing Montezuma’s Revenge.

But I did it - and at some length - in serviceable Spanish.