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Mexican Living: Today's Obsession

By Douglas Bower

I would like to talk about one of my many obsessions: learning Spanish. I have been thinking about this lately mostly because I am under the impression that, though I've lived in Mexico for two years, my Spanish sucks in a major way.

Both Mexicans and Gringos tell me that my Spanish is good and that I speak like a native. Ha! Little do they know the truth.

I can say almost anything I need to in most situations. I can go to our general practitioner, Doctora Bello, and tell her what ails me. And, because she will consciously speak to me slowly, like speaking to a two-year-old child, I can understand her instructions on how to cure the third eye that grew in the middle of my forehead overnight.

My problem with Spanish is that, though I can ask or say almost anything, when a native speaker talks back to me, all I hear is something like the sound a machine gun when it goes off. I hear sounds but nothing that sounds like human speech. I can hear the rhythm but it is unintelligible most of the time.

This can be embarrassing, to say the least. Can you imagine how I function as an expat in this society? Here is the real kicker: My wife, who has trouble with accent and vocabulary, can understand the machine gun Spanish. It is amazing! I am so jealous! She understands far more than I can possibly hope to. I haven't the foggiest notion how she does it. I study day and night and memorize thousands of Spanish words. She doesn't and her fluency outshines mine any time of the day.

What is the deal here?

I've found that I am not alone. Many "older" expats in Mexico have the very same struggle. Though they've studied their hearts out, it is the "listening and comprehending" part of the language that is giving them the most fits.

The first discovery I made is there are some presuppositions that we "older" learners need to dump and dump quickly.

· there is no decline in the ability to learn as people get older;

· except for minor considerations such as hearing and vision loss, the age of the adult learner is not a major factor in language acquisition;

· the context in which adults learn is the major influence on their ability to acquire the new language. [1]

Older foreign language learners can be excellent students in gaining a second language. It is a senseless stereotype that they cannot learn a foreign language. The difficulties in an older person learning a foreign language can be overcome in adjusting the learning environment and by choosing the right methodology.

The biggest obstacle in learning a second language for an older student is an emotional one—doubt. Doubt in the mind of the student is what convinces an older language learner that he or she cannot learn a foreign language and learn it well. Motivation, what I've written in earlier columns, can affect the entire outcome of language learning.

In a study done in 1979, researchers Krashen, Long and Scarcella discovered, "Studies comparing the rate of second language acquisition in children and adults have shown that although children may have an advantage in achieving native-like fluency in the long run, adults actually learn languages more quickly than children in the early stages." [2]

A study in 1981 by Ostwald and Williams revealed, "Studies on aging have demonstrated that learning ability does not decline with age. If older people remain healthy, their intellectual abilities and skills do not decline (Ostwald and Williams, 1981). Adults learn differently from children, but no age-related differences in learning ability have been demonstrated for adults of different ages. [3]

"More recent research in neurology has demonstrated that, while language learning is different in childhood and adulthood because of developmental differences in the brain, "in important respects adults have superior language learning capabilities" (Walsh and Diller, 1978)." [4]

Conclusion: I am without excuse. I have to stay in there swinging the linguistic bat until I hit that home run.

Are you with me?

[1] The Older Language Learner, by Mary Schleppegrell (http://www.ntlf.com/html/lib/bib/87-9dig.htm)

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

Doug Bower is a freelance writer and book author. His most recent writing credits include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Houston Chronicle, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Transitions Abroad. He lives with his wife in Guanajuato, Mexico. His new book, Mexican Living: Blogging it from a Third World Country, can be seen at http://www.lulu.com/content/126241

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