Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Friend Coach

I have come to the conclusion that while all of my Spanish-speaking friends help me in some ways to learn the language, there is a certain kind of friend who is especially helpful to those learning a language.

I do have appreciation for any friend willing to speak Spanish with me--I imagine it takes a lot of patience and commitment to befriend someone who butchers your first language.  When I talk in Spanish I alternate between painfully long pauses while I'm thinking of what to say, choppy passages with embarrassingly poor grammar, and ludicrous phrases where I confuse "mint" with "mind" or "soup" with "soap."  It takes real loving-kindness for someone to bear with me.

But even so, with many of my friends who speak Spanish one of two things happens.
1) They correct my Spanish too abruptly or too often, and I feel stupid or like they're not really listening to what I'm saying because they're listening for mistakes (not too many fall into this group), OR, and this happens far more often,
2) They are too kind to correct me.  

With the first type of people it is difficult to try to speak Spanish.  I find myself unable to even speak up to my current ability level and either switch to English or start to fail wildly and sort of panic (this is not a pretty sight).  With the second, I just keep making the same mistakes over and over.

But again, back to this certain type of friend I was describing.  I have two in particular that come to mind, Diana and Ruth, who are so very good at coaching me without being at all condescending or seeming to be distracted from what we are talking about.  The first way they help me is by being genuinely interested in getting to know me and in hearing my thoughts and ideas.  Trying to communicate beyond shallow subjects requires a grasp of the language which is much more complex and nuanced--and for me to be able to communicate in this way I need some help here and there and someone who is interested enough in my ideas to be willing to wait while I sort through my words to try to express them.

The second way they help me is through a very sweet and subtle system of correction.  This is a delicate art, and I have come to appreciate those few friends who are able to do it well.  Ruth and Diana, as I have mentioned, excel at it.  What they do is to basically use active listening with a twist.  They repeat key words or phrases I have just used in a voice with appropriate emotion (maybe empathy, humor, or exclamation), but they change the words slightly to those I should have used.

So in English it would look like this:

Me:    I was so disappointing this morning when that happen!

Diana:  You were disappointed when that happened? Why?

Me:    Because I think Owen was to be there and he isn't.  And I thought!  No!  I can't handle it!

Diana:   You thought Owen would be there and he wasn't!  Was he still at home?  Did you have all three kids with you?

Me: Yes, and . . .  (you get the idea, this conversation isn't really going anywhere)

It may not seem so impressive, but it really is a most patient and effective teaching technique.  It is through hanging out with friends like this that I have improved as much as I have over the last year (y pico--and a little), and it is through continuing to hang out with them that I hope to become fluent in the language.  Fluency turns out to be a much higher goal than I realized.  Here's hoping these friends want to keep hanging out with me!  :)

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