There are two books in my backpack right now. The first is a little spring break light reading about a French serial killer and the birth of forensic science. I bought it at a hardcover sale at the Harvard bookstore on a whim. Sometimes I have good whims and sometimes I have bad whims. This was a pretty good whim.
The second is a novel written by Gabriel García Márquez entirely in its native language of Spanish: Crónica de una muerte anunciada.
The novel is one of the assigned readings for 21F.704 Spanish IV, my HASS class for this semester. I’ve been attempting to learn Spanish since the 8th grade, having taken a Spanish class every year for the last 6 years. You’d think by now I’d be at least vaguely proficient, but I’m frequently proven otherwise. There’s something about learning a language that just doesn’t stick for me. While I’m fairly capable of memorizing facts and equations (I recently memorized all of the world capitals with Quizlet flashcards on a whim. Perhaps one of my more useless whims), retaining the grammatical flow of a new language is something that has been extremely difficult for me.
Last spring I took 21F.703, my first language class here at MIT, because I have always wanted to travel to a Spanish speaking country, perhaps for a MISTI or a GTL over IAP. It’s one thing to fill in the blanks of grammatical exercises or to write contrived sentence using words from a vocabulary list; that I can do. It’s quite another to be able to speak and understand the language at a realistic pace. I feel like all of my years of Spanish learning haven’t necessarily gotten me any closer to a functional understanding of the language, more so than they’ve trained me to be a really great Spanish student.
A lot of the work done in high school was understandably foundational: vocabulary lists, verb conjugation charts, and listening to overly enunciated short conversations about oddly specific things like train station terminals or vegetables. You have to start somewhere, I get that. But sometimes I wonder if maybe we were spending a little too much time hyper-focused on the parts such that we lost sight of the whole. A drawback of classroom learning I suppose.
I can’t speak for any of the other languages taught here at MIT, but I think the Spanish classes have taken a step in the right direction. Classes are capped at 18 students and are more discussion and conversation based.
Most of the activities in class are structured around stories or movies that we have read/watched for homework. Once in class, we arrange ourselves in a half circle of chairs and spend only a few of the fifty minutes reviewing whatever grammatical concept is being covered for that unit. Then, the bulk of the time is spent discussing our opinions on the story as a class, or having conversations with our seat neighbors. We practice translating our thoughts into spoken word; it’s an exercise in mutual communication. Not only are we struggling to convey our own thoughts to others in a coherent way, but we are also learning to understand those around us.
Because grammar is important, we still cover that as well, but most of it is in the form of completing exercises and worksheets as homework, leaving class time as an exercise in functional communication. Story and movie watching each come with a set of vocabulary words and thought-provoking questions that ask us to analyze the work on the same level as we might in an English class. Whether or not these complex thoughts are successfully translated is another matter altogether, but it’s the thought that counts, right? We also complete VoiceThreads for homework, which are short recordings of ourselves that we submit online for the professor to review. Feedback on our pronunciation has mainly been concerned with our inability to properly pronounce the rolled “rr”. I can’t for the life of me figure it out, so if you have any tips, I’m all ears.
An added bonus is the fact that the stories and movies that we read are usually rather fascinating, or at the very least bizarre enough to warrant interest. The last short story we read in class was also by Gabriel García Márquez, the wizard of magical realism, and it was about an old man with very large wings. Though the plot itself was rather unremarkable, there was an interesting passage about a spider with a woman’s head that was actually a girl who had disobeyed her parents. What.
I find movie watching to be particularly helpful. Because the movies are made to be watched by Spanish speakers, and not targeted at floundering Spanish students, the dialogue is a useful exposure to the intonations and word choices of real conversational Spanish. While they are certainly harder to understand than the learning sound clips about eggplants and carrots we have been trained with, Spanish subtitles can help fill in the blanks. Some movies we have watched so far include Pan’s Labyrinth, a movie I thoroughly enjoyed (though the creepy eyeball hand man was, well, creepy), as well as The Motorcycle Diaries, an interesting portrayal of Ché Guevara’s transformation during an extended road trip through South America.
Though sometimes the nightly homework can feel like a burden, especially since the concept of nightly homework is nonexistent for most technical classes, I think the work is starting to pay off. I’m still a long ways away from being confident enough to call myself fluent, but I certainly feel like the daily conversations and exposure to famous Spanish literary and cinematic works is guiding me in the right direction.
We are only on chapter two of Crónica de una muerte anunciada and it’s already a struggle. But the plot, involving the investigation of a murder that occurred 27 years ago, is interesting enough to make me want to forge onwards (though I guess even if it wasn’t interesting, I’d have to do it anyway since that’s how homework works).
I’m looking forward to my spring break in Southern California, replete with the literary misadventures of murderers and serial killers galore.