The Journey To Fluency – May 2010

The Journey To Fluency

By Dilia Suriel


siestatimeIwitnessed a lady struggling to express herself in Spanish; despite my Latin features she asked: “Do you speak English?” “Exquisitely.” I responded.  

She was a retired English Literature professor. She loved words and longed to express herself in Spanish. We embarked in a too familiar discussion, “What should I do to become fluent in Spanish?”

Communication is what allows us to impart thoughts, opinions, or information. It is the process by which we arrive at understanding each other or reach an emotional connection. Communication is what defines the quality of our relationships, what deepens our sense of influence, what provides options as to which artisans, which professionals we can retain and which friends to hold.

I speak beyond intellectual deafness that keeps us from the richness of another culture. I speak of the enfoldment that a new language affords us. To truly be fluent in Spanish you would empathize with Octavio Paz’s nostalgia and a search for community, with Isabel Allende’s relationships between past and present, family and nation, spiritual and political values. You would journey into Carlos Fuentes’s humor, erudition and then arrive at Pablo Neruda’s surrealistic passion.

Fluency is galaxies beyond mechanistic translations, it is the journey of mastery, a journey of allowance, a willingness to be a child once again, and sound foolish and give up all facade and labels. It is to be born again into a new set of values. As we age we become set in our way and like cement it is a brutal, tedious, and rigorous task to be dis-encrusted. Children have never savored the beauty of an insightful sentence; never brought light into an obscure idea, or through language connected to a matched level of consciousness. They have no attachment to what it is that they must temporarily forfeit in order to arrive at fluency.

So what would it mean if you master Spanish? The inquiry is not a trivial question. And to what level? The first is reading. Here we translate words and intellectually put them into a conceptual jigsaw pieces into our language.

The second level is hearing, the primary channel through which our brains carry a wealth of emotional and cognitive structure that fires up our imagination. Language is the mind’s opposable thumbs. The challenge is that most native speakers talk at machine gun speed. So master the phrase: Yo entiendo español pero no a la velocidad de una metralladora.

The third level is speaking. Here there are multiple challenges. As a beginner speaker we tend to select the word closest in sound to what we would like to say. But we quickly find that embarrassed is not embarazada (pregnant), pie is not pie (foot), soap is not sopa (soup or pasta), and exit is not éxito (success)

In speaking there is also the challenge of the muscular biases of each language. For the native English speaker, the double r sound needs to be intentionally developed. The other challenge is the preponderancy of English speakers to contract sounds that in Spanish are distinct syllables, Bu-e-nos A-i-res versus Bue-no Ai-res.

It has been stated that the shortest distance between two people is laughter. The fourth level is getting the humor as it is where one unearths not only individual preferences but the inherent values of a culture.

The fifth level of fluency is discerning distinctions. There is a spectrum of subtleties within words that Roget grouped as synonyms. It took me years after I “spoke” English, to laugh at jokes, to learn that honor is not reputation, a soldier is not a warrior, a snake is not necessary a serpent.

The sixth level of fluency is identifying with the values of the society. The Japanese have nine words for honor. The French have no word for fair-play. The Germans have 11 adjectives that denote precision. Subtleties in words betray the values of the society.

The seven and final level of fluency is the Jungian encapsulation of the society’s consciousness, its art, music, literature, in short its expression. The Japanese value the ineffable quality that has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances, the concept of Shibumi. In contrast Latin American consciousness is about connections, brilliance, intensity and bold expression.

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