Unexpected Journey to Becoming Bilingual
I think it was destiny for me to become bilingual in Spanish and English. I grew up hearing Arabic, the language of my parents, close relatives, and the numerous families that came from our village and settled in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Hearing the language daily and singing Arabic and Aramaic songs in the Maronite church, I developed an ear for listening and mimicking sounds that were very similar to Spanish. Rolling the r and pronouncing words with sounds produced far back in the throat seemed to come naturally to me.
Although English was my native language, I was able to thrive in our close- knit, bilingual, Lebanese community with extended family on my doorstep who spoke our native language. It was as if we were literally mirroring our home village of Abdelli, in North Lebanon. Each day, we were gifted with the melodic sounds of Arabic music, the daily conversations of our elderly speaking Arabic as they played cards under the grape vines, various dialects of Arabic music on the radio (my father was the DJ), and frequent religious and social gatherings with our beloved church at the center of our social lives. This environment represented our ethnic identity, as we indulged in the familiar sounds of the language and its significance to our culture. Truly, this was the beginning of my passionate love affair with languages. It was in my blood and in my soul! I have no doubt that it was my ethnic beginnings that seeded and nurtured my intense awareness of the tremendous power of language.
When I was in the 3rd grade, our local school piloted a Spanish program for elementary students. As a participant, I was invited to the local university to demonstrate its effectiveness. At the time, I had no idea what was happening, but now I know it was because I had responded so well to Spanish instruction. This was my first encounter with Spanish, and I loved it! I was excited, and never forgot how I felt in this dynamic language class with Mrs. Hull! Her spoken methods and positive energy were unforgettable.
In junior and senior high school, I continued studying Spanish, schlepping through the “audio-lingual” method that we all know so well. Everyone remembers the rote learning and repetition, grammar, and tests, right? We all do, but we never really learned how to create real conversations. This method was the trend at that time in schools, typically offering students the choice among French, Spanish, or German: all of which used the same, stilted method of instruction. Despite two to three years of study, most of us did not learn how to speak beyond a few basic phrases, at best.
After high school, I traveled to Lebanon for six months with my aunt Zahiah to build a school in Abdelli, our village, fulfilling my uncle’s last wish. There I was able to practice Arabic and learn about my ethnic roots and our ancient culture. Stepping foot on Lebanese soil was a life-changing experience for me and what I would later realize was the profound experience that defined my lifelong relationship and passion for languages and cultures.
When I returned to the U.S., I entered Niagara County Community College, then transferred to SUNY Buffalo. There, I majored in linguistics and continued my fascination studying both Arabic and Spanish, exploring their roles in permeating cultural behaviors and norms worldwide.
At this point, unfortunately, I was still learning more about both languages, rather than acquiring speaking skills that matched the many years I had spent studying them. While it was quite interesting information, my language skills did not progress much. Yet, little did I know that things were about to change considerably.
In my junior year of college, I met my husband, Octavio who had come from Mexico to study English at the Intensive English Language Institute at SUNY Buffalo. He was already an engineer at age 20 since he started college at 15. We courted and married two years later, and after one year of working with Carborundum as an engineer, and both having completed our master’s degrees, we were transferred to the Latin American operation in Toluca, Mexico. This is finally where the Spanish magic was destined to transpire.
Once in Toluca, home to the Nevada de Toluca, a snow-capped volcano, my Spanish immersion experience began. In just under eight months, I was able to claim a reasonable level of bilingualism. With my husband off to work, I had time to mingle in the community and focus on really learning Spanish.
After starting out with a repertoire of “hola, ¿cómo estás7′, an initial greeting, I was beginning to reach a comfortable level of communication. I was speaking with ease and confidence, which allowed me to succeed in getting most of my needs met.
As I began to speak Spanish more fluently, I began to feel at home in my new country. I continuously practiced by watching a famous Mexican soap opera, or novela, ‘De Pura Sangre’. My motivation also enticed me to ask questions on my visits to the open-air markets, or mercados sobre ruedas. A grand impetus in acquiring Spanish was when I began working for ITESM, as Director of English, where I learned academic Spanish for teaching, interacting with students and colleagues. I also spent time using Spanish to interact in correspondence. After eight months, I had become relatively fluent in academic Spanish, and since that initial push, I have steadily continued to add words, and expressions to my inventory.
From Toluca, we moved north to Chihuahua, a large industrial city where more opportunities were brewing. There, I continued to improve my own Spanish. As it were, I was also in the right place at the right time: the dawn of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). After several requests for language services from international companies establishing operations in Mexico, I followed my path and passion and opened an adult language institute. Instituto Lingua Franca supported industry professionals from all over the world in English, Spanish, and bi-cultural training. This opportunity provided a platform for me to share my language learning expertise with professionals needing training for positions in bi-national manufacturing.
After 30 years, the institute still offers language training and other services to international professionals in the city.
Mexico was the turning point for my language learning. I will always be deeply grateful for this unique, unexpected, and life-changing experience. Becoming bilingual in Spanish had afforded me countless opportunities, both professionally and personally, to engage with amazing people in the most interesting settings. Not only had I learned a second language, but as an entrepreneur, I was able to build on business skills that would later serve me in higher education and beyond.
What was to come next can only be described as fate. The next chapter of my journey came about because of my bilingual skills in Spanish. As I sought to pursue a PhD, I was awarded a full scholarship as a research fellow in Foreign and Second Language Education. In part, I can attribute this opportunity to a bilingual requirement of the program which focused on bilingual education and language learning. This achievement would come to enhance my professional dossier, adding to my living and working abroad. It would launch me on a new and exciting career path as a tenured professor in higher education, reaching out to share my collective gifts with students, colleagues, and the community.
Looking back, I reflect on what began back in the third grade in that experimental Spanish class, and how my journey came to fruition by way of a lifetime of unexpected endeavors, opportunities and fortunate timing.
Living in Mexico and learning the language while experiencing the culture was an immeasurable gift. I continue to be in love with mi querida México (my dear Mexico) and its people, and their warm culture, and I hope my story can inspire you to travel, enjoy languages and cultures, and seek out the rich, loving experiences that are waiting for you around the world!
My Life’s Passion
My life’s passion and curiosity have always been foreign languages and the cultures that are transmitted through them. I care about the human connection through spirit and energy, using language to bring everyone to an understanding with great passion and compassion. I care about food as my medicine, relationships that nurture, and life that is full and joyful.
My lifelong relationship with languages has led me to intellectual pursuits of their power, travel to faraway places and memories of sounds, smells, and sights that I can never erase from my person. It has allowed me to touch countless human beings through instruction, and savor their unique
cultures through food, dress, political views, and social norms. Like no other relationship in my life, I have come to grow old with them, watched their ebb and flow, and have brought them to a place that is settled and calm.
Languages and I are best friends for life, and I am forever grateful for their role in making me who I have become as I journey through the years. I was raised in a home where my parents and members of the community spoke Arabic and lived in Mexico where I acquired the Spanish language. Throughout life, I was continuously exposed to cultural aspects of my ethnic heritage, and for many years, the culture of Mexico. Multilingualism and multiculturalism were always part of who I was, and to this day, they continue to define my essence.
I was once told by a professor that I am what is called a “talented language learner” since I was able to learn Spanish as a near-native speaker even though English is my first language. I am fortunate to have been born with such a gift, and I am eager to share my language skills with the world!
Speaking Spanish As A Foreign Language
I understand how intimidating it can be to talk to a native speaker in a language that is not your own. I had that experience living in Mexico as an expat and as a wife of a national, and I remember the frustration and the utter urgency to learn to speak and understand what was going on in my world.
For this reason, I believe that the Sandwich Spanish IS Painless Spanish approach is the best way to learn to speak in a short time and to retain the language as one builds on it over time. Real learning comes from the purpose to communicate, to be understood and get our everyday needs met.
The framework of this book highlights a real need for speaking Spanish. It starts by electing a ‘pivot’, or key phrase that can be used ” on call” in several, diverse settings. Then relevant words are presented as well as information on cultural cues. What ultimately strengthens this entire process is the firm acquisition of five clear vowels that always sound the same (and are the heart of any word in Spanish) and the consonants, which are mostly the same as English with only 12 exceptions. All together these elements allow us to begin to feel confident and at ease to articulate any sentence in Spanish.
By pivoting, practicing, and accepting the language as it is, any need is fulfilled, regardless of what we know about the grammar rules! The process is streamlined and logical from the start. Isn’t that what we are all looking for?
We have seen time and time again that learning about the language through grammar rules or memorization simply does not make us functional Spanish speakers. Since language is social and learned through socialization, we must have contact with the language we intend to learn.