Monday, October 31, 2011

Language Learning: Why is it taking so long?

As we approach the 9-month mark here in Bolivia, the question we get asked the most right now is, "When are you going to be done studying Spanish?"

You've probably seen programs that advertise "Fluent in 6 weeks or your money back" and the like. Well, like most things, it just isn't that easy. The big question is how to define fluency.

Our language progress is measured using a system similar to the ACTFL standard for proficiency testing. Essentially, we have regular proficiency evaluations that very accurately place us on the ladder of progress. Basically, it's 4 levels, broken into 10 sub-levels, as in this very boring chart I made just now:

Where are you right now?
Our evaluations establish our "floor" of language use. That is, when we reach a particular level, it means that we never speak below that level. Our last evaluation, at the end of August placed me between levels 5 & 6 and Kaylee right on the high end of level 3, reaching for 4. We will be having another evaluation in another month and both hope to break into the next BIG level!

What is your goal?
Obviously, we want to speak as well as possible. Our organization has established a standard that we do not teach publicly until we have reached at least Advanced: Low (level 7). I am shooting to reach Advanced:High (level 9).The reasoning behind this is simply explained by a mistake I made in class recently:

I was talking about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and got to the part about Lot's wife turning to the city and becoming a pillar of salt. I said:

Ella dio una vuelta a la ciudad. (She walked around the city). . .nope. . .um:

Ella dio la vuelta a la ciudad. (She turned the city over). . .nope. . .er:

Ella se dio la vuelta a la ciudad. (She turned toward the city). . .Whew!

How would you like to sit under a teacher/preacher that made mistakes like that? The only reason I changed my statement is that my instructor corrected me. If I had been teaching a Bible class, I would have just kept on going after the first statement, without realizing that I had led everyone astray. Not a big deal, right? But what if I made a similar mistake when teaching about the life of Christ, or the nature of salvation?

Unimaginable harm has been done here because of people teaching at low-level "fluency."

But isn't Spanish just a trade language? Why learn it so well?
Yes, that's true to a point. We do plan to do the bulk of our ministry in the Guaray├║ language (an indigenous language completely unrelated to Spanish). However, Spanish is the most widely-spoken language in the country, and anytime we are out of the tribal area, we will need it! Also, we are building relationships now with the local church here in the city. For them to share in our future ministry, we need to be able to accurately share with them.

However, the most important reason is that we work with Bolivian nationals! At this point, it looks as though we will not have any expat missionaries on our tribal missionary team. The other families that are getting involved in this tribe are Bolivians that have gone (or are going) through our organization's national training program, similar to what we did in the US. For us to work and fellowship together, we must be able to communicate with them at a high level.

When will you finish and move into the tribe?
That's a complicated question! If we continue to progress as we have, I hope to finish my Spanish study next spring. Kaylee will hopefully finish around the end of the year or early 2013. A lot of that depends on what I get involved in after I finish Spanish and how much I can take over at home to give Kaylee more study time.

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