Learning a new language
Ever thought of taking up a second language? Traveling to a Mexican beach and chatting with the locals? It always sounds so easy, but it isn’t. Believe me! My family and I moved to Santiago, Chile, several years ago when our children were 7 and 10 years old. What an experience. I spoke NO SPANISH.
Well, I thought I knew a little. I could say very simple things such as: “hello” (hola); “bathroom” (baÃ±o) and “thank you” (gracias). Our two children didn’t speak a word, either. Fortunately, my husband knew some Spanish having grown up on a sheep ranch, so he could get us around. Our first visit to Santiago left me with the perception that learning another language was no big deal. Most everyone at the motel and the restaurants spoke English, and I thought living in another country was going to be a piece of cake.
Then the real world hit when we moved lock, stock and barrel to a country where the primary language is Spanish. I can laugh now, but imagine the following scenario.
My first morning there, I was woken up early by someone knocking on the apartment door. I opened the door, and there was the cleaning lady my husband had told me was coming. I was totally unable to communicate at all, other than to say “hola” and grin like an idiot. After a few awkward seconds, she immediately started chatting away as fast as the dickens. I kept trying to find a familiar word now and again (remember my language consisted of hello, bathroom, and thank you); however, she didn’t speak any of those words. She was a smart lady, though. She immediately started to use gestures and to pantomime what she was trying to communicate. She and I played a game of charades for almost an hour, until the “BIG PROBLEM” hit. She kept saying something about “ropa” and gesturing things in the air. I’m thinking “what does she need a rope for?” I quickly moved to thinking she was talking about the moon (don’t even ask where that came from).
It was an agonizing 15 minutes or so with her working up a sweat trying to pantomime what she meant by “ropa” and me standing there like an idiot. Finally, she had an idea!
She ran into the kitchen and grabbed all of the clean kitchen towels out of the drawer, took them into the laundry room, put laundry detergent in the machine and started to wash the kitchen towels. She excitedly turned to me pointing to the towels repeating “ropa, ropa, ropa,” expecting complete comprehension on my part! Now it was my turn to stare at her like she was the idiot! Why she insisted on washing the clean kitchen towels was beyond me and I couldn’t imagine that she was going to get much accomplished that day. I just shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.
She finally sighed a BIG sigh, gave me a puzzled look, and walked away grumbling to herself. She worked steadily for the next four or so hours, but never attempted to communicate with me. Finally, when she was ready to go, she put on her coat and said “ciao” (pronounced chow) and left. I figured she was going to lunch. Later that day, when my husband came home, I told him about my inability to communicate and how the silly cleaning lady washed the clean kitchen towels. I told him she kept saying something about needing a rope. He laughed and asked if the word was “ropa”? When I told him that was the word, he said that it meant laundry! She was apparently asking me if there was any laundry for her to do. Ropa became my favorite word after that!
Learning a second language develops in phases and stages. It isn’t easy to learn to speak, much less learn how to read and write a second language. As someone is learning a new language, the following stages are fairly universal:
Stage 1: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) Silent period — a person knows about 500 single words, and it takes 2 weeks to 2 months to learn them.
Stage 2: BICS Telegraphic Stage — knows about 1,000 words and can speak one or two word sentences. This period takes 2-4 months.
Stage 3: BICS Simple Sentence stage — about 3,000 words with simple sentences. This period takes 1 to 2 years.
Stage 4: BICS to Cognitive/Academic Language (CALP) Bridging — knows beyond 3,000 words and simple to complex sentences. This stage lasts from 3 to 5 years.
Stage 5: Cognitive / Academic Language — can read and write fluently in the second language. This stage takes 5 to 10 years to develop.
To put these stages into perspective, an English-speaking child must have a vocabulary of 2,500 words before he or she can start to learn to read. The average kindergartner knows about 5,000 words, and the average third-grader has a vocabulary of about 22,000 words.
We had lots more “miscommunication” adventures while living in South America that we laugh about today. The most important thing I learned from that experience was that learning a different language is a monumental task! By the way, the Chileans use the word “ciao” to say goodbye. Ciao!
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