Saturday, January 8, 2011

My Nemesis

Learning, for the most part, has always come easy to me and it's something I truly enjoy. I like digging into a subject and finding out as much as I can about it. It's fun to discover new facts, especially if they're unusual ones. In a different life I might be a researcher (something I did occasionally on a freelance basis some years ago for a kids' magazine).

I said for the most part because there are exceptions to the rule.

Math is one of them. I can do basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but anything beyond that makes my head hurt. I just find it so hard to wrap my mind around advanced number problems. But the basics I can do with no problem, fairly fast in my head, and so far that's been sufficient for balancing the checkbook, figuring out how much fabric to buy for a quilt project, and calculating out how much something costs when it's 35% off.

This may not be the place to admit it, but I never went beyond high school algebra. Our high school either didn't ask for more or else the business math I took in the adjoining vocational school met the requirement.

[Oh, and as a side note, I once won a competition for adding the fastest with a calculator!]

Anyway, back to my point. About the math. By the time I was finishing college as an adult, I managed to avoid the dreaded math when they allowed me to substitute a computer class instead. Woot! Good thing, too, or I might have gotten my first "C" (or worse) in college. As bad as I am with numbers, I may never have graduated at all!

But even worse than math? Foreign languages. During the year we spent in Uganda both my husband and daughter did quite well at picking up the local tribal language. Me? Not so much. In fact, I never did get the proper greeting down right. I always -- and I do mean ALWAYS -- said it wrong. Only I couldn't hear what I was saying wrong, so it was impossible to do any better. To me it sounded just fine, but according to everyone else, it was WRONG. *sigh*

And then God brought me to Argentina.
Where, in case you didn't know it, they speak SPANISH.

I should have known from the beginning, when I was allowed to sit in on first year Spanish at a college near our home in Michigan. Right from the get-go I found it necessary to spend anywhere from an hour-and-a-half to three hours preparing for each class. We met four times a week, so you do the math.

My head hurts just thinking about it. Not the math, but the sheer difficulty of learning a language.

It didn't help my confidence any when I discovered that the girls I sat near were spending twenty minutes (at most) getting ready for class and they were running circles around me.

I still have a vivid memory from that first semester. Our professor suggested we all purchase the book 501 Spanish Verbs and so I did. The day it came I sat down to look at it. The subtitle is "Fully conjugated in all the tenses in a new EASY-TO-LEARN format alphabetically arranged" (emphasis mine). That's when I realized there's a bazillion different conjugations for EVERY SINGLE VERB. Okay, maybe not a bazillion, but there are a LOT. Here's a page from the book; see for yourself:
There are seven simple tenses, seven compound tenses (but the pluscuamperfecto de subjuntivo  has 12, not just 6 possible conjugations so it counts for an extra tense) plus the imperative.... (drum roll, please) adding up to an impressive 16 tenses. Each tense has six ways to conjugate it: first, second and third person singular as well as first, second and third person plural.

Like I said, I can do basic math, and the math MADE ME CRY.
16 x 6 = 96
And that's just one verb!
In that one book alone, with only the most common verbs, there's a mind-numbing...
501 x 96 = 48,096
conjugations to learn!
I cried and I cried and I cried. I kept crying for two hours. My poor husband didn't know what to do, so he did the smart thing and did nothing :)

Finally I just went to bed, still sobbing and hiccuping as I brushed my teeth, washed my face and crawled under the covers.

Where I would have gladly stayed for a long, long time.

Nor did it help my confidence the next year when I took the second semester of second year TWICE and STILL DIDN'T GET IT.  It was a literature-based class and, while I did enjoy the stories, it took me a SWEET FOREVER to read them. That three-hours-per-class preparation began to look pretty good in retrospect!

But all along I kept thinking I'd do better once I got here -- after all, immersion is the way to go, right? RIGHT?!

I'm here to tell you that while it's better than any other method of learning a language, it's still not the golden pill.

Yes I am learning. But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who has taken longer to get to where I am today. I still have trouble understanding what others say. A LOT OF TROUBLE. Like maybe I get 25-30%. ON A GOOD DAY.

This doesn't mean I'm giving up.
Not at all.
But it does mean this has been a truly humbling experience.
I've come to realize this will be a LIFE-LONG learning process.
It has made me more compassionate about how others learn and retain, whether it's a language or some other subject.
And it has made me wish, on more than one occasion,
for the GIFT OF TONGUES :)


junglewife said...

I agree. The verb conjugation in Spanish is CRAZY. If you ever want to learn another language, you should try Indonesian :-) The pronunciation is very phonetic, like Spanish, but there is NO conjugation of verbs, and very little grammar! The verb tenses are always the same, but if you want to talk about the future, you just say "will" in front of the verb, and if you are talking about the past you just put "did" in front of the verb. :-)

Mari said...

You made me laugh with your last statement!
I would be the same. I think the Indonesian people sound pretty smart. I know English is a terrible language to learn too.

rita said...

On the other hand, ladies, the Spanish verb system is very ARTICULATE! Change one letter and you have another meaning, another nuance. Wonderful, right, Kim? or...?
You must have meant conjugations rather than tenses.
Have you ever checked out It helps to find patterns, shortcuts, mnemonic devices. I used color coding to help learn the verbs. In fact The Color Connection is the company that came up with the learning resources you will find in the above website.
No te des por vencida. Jamas.

(Maybe you can help me find Spanish character on this little notebook.)

sara said...

I am the same with math, but I always did well in languages. I was an exchange student in Spain in HS and I remember my excitement when I had my first dream in Spanish! However, after not using it for years and years, I can't remember much now!

The Bug said...

I think I'd have the same problems if I had to learn a language. I took Spanish in high school & did ok - but that was just a matter of memorizing things, not really LEARNING.

I'm still a whiz on a 10 key. That's why majored in accounting - I love adding machines. Heh.

The Cyber Hermit said...

I came over here to check out your blog after you left a comment on my Project 365 week.

I'm just the opposite - love Spanish. I took it for eight years and tutored it. However, I am glad I have fingers and toes because I need all of them when I attempt to do even the most basic of math problems. If I don't have enough fingers and toes, then I am in T-R-O-U-B-L-E :).

Buena suerte!

Oldfangled said...

Ugh. I'm so sorry. If God ever wants me to be a missionary, I really hope it's to an English-speaking country. I think our brains work similarly. Please, no math or foreign language.