This summer, I did some babysitting from time to time. One of the girls I watched is four and a half. She was very cute, but sometimes she fussed or lashed out at her sister or screamed when she didn't get what she wanted. She had to be reminded to use her words. The thing is, to a four-and-a-half-year-old, using words isn’t always easy. She might know that she wanted to say is, “Could you please drop that purple marker and give it to me right now because you've had it already for five minutes and it’s really my turn, please?” but that’s a lot of words, and some of them are hard to pronounce, and maybe she didn't quite remember how to say “already,” and she got so frustrated that hitting came to seem like a much more effective way to get her point across in the moment.
Most of us don’t remember how frustrating it was to be four and to not be able to articulate our thoughts as effortlessly as the big amazing grown-ups around us. When the grown-ups said things, they made sense, but when we tried to do the same, somehow it didn’t come out quite right. And yet we persisted, because there wasn’t any other option, and because the benefits of suffering through toddlerhood were so great: to be able to speak and think and talk and read and write in our native tongue, more or less without trying.
This summer, I willingly turned myself back into a toddler. I was four again (or if I'm being honest, more like two) for two nights a week from 5:30 to 7, at BASE, the Boston Area Spanish Exchange.
That’s right, I’m learning Spanish. And as with most things in my life, you can blame it on the birds. A few months ago, when I was searching for ornithology internships and field research positions, I kept stumbling across positions in fantastic-sounding countries in South America. “Please send us writing samples in English and Spanish,” one of the descriptions said. For others, “knowing Spanish is beneficial, though not required.” Another one stipulated, “candidates with strong Spanish language skills are preferred.” Drat. I have been taking French in school since sixth grade, and I’ve gotten pretty good. I spent three weeks in Paris this winter with the Newton North French Exchange, and refused to speak any English with my host family. I can write and comprehend fluently, and my speaking is improving steadily. There are still countless words, phrases, and idioms that I don’t know, but if you plunked me down in a francophone country, I would be (and was) totally fine.
As for Spanish, my grasp of the language was limited to bizarre fragments gleaned from my friends at the lunch table at school, as most of them took Spanish. I knew how to say things like ¿Qué estas haciendo? (What are you doing?) and ¿Puedo ir al baño? (Can I go to the bathroom?) and “Yo sé que la unica manera de eliminar la pereza es ser muy estricto”*** which came from a seventh-grade Spanish class skit having to do with a ghost, and which my friends were still repeating ad infinitum well into high school.
Anyway, I gave this some thought. I have really enjoyed learning French (and I’m not stopping! More on this in future posts!) and between future bird-related travels and the large Spanish-speaking population both in the United States and elsewhere in the world, it seemed like I had everything to gain from studying the language. So I signed up for a twice-a-week Spanish class, bought a textbook, and began at the beginning. “Me llamo Kaija Gahm. Vivo en Newton y tengo diecisiete años. ¿Cómo estas? Estoy bien, y tú?”
Of course there is a limit to how much Spanish one can learn in three hours a week. But taking this course has taught me a few things. First, language learning is really cool. The fact that kids can, simply by hearing words around them, learn to string those words into coherent sentences is mind-boggling when you try to do the same as an adult. In class, I listen and jot down phrases (Hay esta = there it is), mentally resolving to use them the next time the opportunity presents itself. I have gained new insight into how I talk to my babysitting charges: even repeating what they say, but elaborating, helps them to feel heard and gives them new words for their stories and sentences.
In Spanish class:
Profesora: “Kaija, ¿por qué necessitamos los adjetivos?”
Kaija: “Uhm… para hablar bien?"
Profesora: “Sí, para describir las personas y las cosas muy específicamente!”
Kid: “The queen goes inside the tornado and it’s very sad!”
Me: “Did she want to go inside the tornado?”
Kid: “No! The tornado comes onto her and she doesn’t want to go!”
Me: “She gets caught in the tornado, and it takes her away?”
Me: “Does she say ‘Oh no!’?”
Kid: “OH NO!"
The second thing I’ve learned from Spanish class is this: French helps. Wow, does French help. I have a second set of cognates to work off of, and I’ve already grappled with the grammar structures. I was able to grasp “haber” easily because it’s analogous to the French “il y a,” and reflexive verbs make sense to me. I know what definite and indefinite articles are, and I have practice with making accords between gendered nouns and adjectives, verb conjugations and subjects. In one class we had a contest to see who could identify the most adjectives, verbs, nouns, etc. in the lyrics of a song. Three people scored highly, and within three points of each other. The other two scored much lower. I did well and I thought I knew why. After class, I checked: sure enough, the high scorers had all studied French before taking this class. Of the other two, one had never taken a foreign language and the other had studied German, which has little relationship to Spanish.
Interestingly, though, French also hurts. It seems that my brain has a compartment for English and a compartment for all other languages. I frequently find myself saying “des” instead of “unas” or “unos”. The word “les,” which is a definite article in French and a personal pronoun in Spanish, never fails to confuse me.
Most of all, taking Spanish has taught me that comprehension, especially when another language is helping me out, comes lightyears ahead of speaking. It’s frustrating, much like being trapped in a bubble, able to perceive the world but unable to engage with it. But hey, now I know how it feels to be a baby! In January and February of this year, I’ll be switching back to French, living with a family in Rodez for a month or so as part of a work exchange program called Workaway. But I hope that sometime this year, be it over the holidays or next spring, I will have a chance to continue studying Spanish, because even though being four is great, I’m pretty excited to grow up.
***If you were wondering, this translates to “I know that the only way to eliminate laziness is to be very strict.” All I know is that the skit was about a ghost. If you’re confused, you’re in good company.
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Welcome to Hawk Ridge
A Massive Migration
A Happy Birdthday
Photos from the Week
Visiting the Banding Station
A Watched Kettle Never Streams
Food, Part 1
The Big Picture
Last Weeks at the Ridge
Belize, Part 1
How to Look at Birds, A Guide (or: Belize, Part 2)
All Creatures Great and Small
Kids and Language, Again
More Photos from France
Food, Part 2
Building Nests in California
Please Do Not Pet the Woodpecker
Condors and Creatures in Big Sur
A Day at Hastings
I am a high school graduate taking a gap year before college. I’m interested in birds, biology, and the natural world, as well as history, foreign languages, writing, and reading.