Speak! Story #2
Carlos and Suzanne
Suzanne’s Course: One-on-One Spanish, 38hrs, focus on HEALTH CARE SPANISH
Tutor: Carlos Pezua
“What does a duck do on a lake?” I asked my new student, Suzanne, a nurse in the department of radiology at UVa. She had signed up for one-on-one Spanish classes through Speak! Language Center, the company I work for, and we were just meeting each other. She cocked her head and repeated the question, clearly trying to understand its relevance to our lesson.
“It swims or nothing,” I said and then asked again, this time in Spanish, “¿Qué hace el pato en el lago?” she smiled and deduced, “So ‘pato’ is duck.” “Sí”, I wrote on the whiteboard behind us and added, “Yes- it does have an accent as I nodded my head in the affirmative. If it doesn’t have the accent mark it means ‘if’.
“Then tell me, what does the ‘pato’ do en el lago?” she questioned. “Nada,” I answered as deadpan as possible. At the time, I doubt she recognized the third person singular form of the verb nadar, to swim, was a homophone of the Spanish word for nothing, “nada”.
“¿Entiendes? Do you understand?” “Sí”, she said and wrote and made the accent mark over the ‘i’ very obvious.
Though not a really funny joke it did break the proverbial ice and set a tone for our lessons and our unfolding friendship. The question is actually quite pedagogically useful as it presents a very typical interrogative structure, contains the irregular verb ‘hacer’, and includes some phonetically easy vocabulary which is just silly enough to remember. Moreover, using humor represents a deeper understanding of any language. I also had wanted to allay some of Suzanne’s initial concerns about the difficulty of learning a new language especially with the hopes of being able to actually use it in a practical and beneficial manner.
I have always used a communicative, conversation-driven approach to language instruction and although there is a distinct teaching and learning aspect to my work, I don’t really think about it as instruction as much as interactive language sharing and, whenever possible, playing with words. Suzanne, luckily, was appreciative of this perspective and it was apparent we had hit it off well.
During our first meeting we went on to exchange general and common “getting to know you” questions such as, “Where are you from? Where do you live?, With whom do you live?, in English. I kept notes of the questions we asked and of our answers to serve as the basis for repeating the same activity in Spanish. Meeting a person and discovering commonalities to enjoy and differences to discuss and consider provides one of the most practical and authentic contexts for language usage. It also implicitly presents a great deal of the grammar and syntax dealing with the first and second person singular subjects you and I.
I told Suzanne about the American Council on Teaching Foreign Language’s motto: Knowing how, when, and why to say what to whom. We appreciated the slogan’s succinctness and began designing a conversation-based curriculum supplanted by humor, notwithstanding the bad introductory duck joke.
She shared her long-term hope to be a medical interpreter but her immediate goal was to be better able to interact with her Spanish-speaking patients and their families. To help expedite her learning, Suzanne had planned a trip to Peru, my father’s homeland. This provided a great incentive for Suzanne, further context for our lessons, and was yet another thing we could relate to each other about.
Before we opened a single book or academically considered a particular grammatical lesson we reviewed the phonetics of Spanish and the constancy of its vowel sounds. A quick comparison to the peculiarities of Suzanne’s mother tongue using the statement ‘Though the cough, plough through the rough,’ made the point dramatically (druh mA tick uhlee) obvious.
“Imagine having to learn English,” I joked her, “Oh wait! You did!” Knowing that A-E-I-O-U always have the same sounds in Spanish diminished the degree of the uphill slope Suzanne was considering learning Spanish would be. It also allowed us to do some call and response drills and vocalizations that, had they been more rhythmic, would have passed as a couple of Jazz singers scatting ZABA RI BABA, MUMI DADE. Suzanne mastered the pronunciation right away and we were both happy that she could easily decode any word she encountered as we perused a copy of the acclaimed Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa’s, La Ciudad y los Perros. Even the ten-letter word for the animal bat (chosen because it contains all the vowels) MURCIELAGO was a breeze for her.
“¿Y qué hace el murcielago en el lago?” I asked Suzanne. “¿Nada?” she guessed. “C’mon, Suzanne, bats don’t swim.” We could not have been off to a better start.
Although she was just beginning her study of Spanish, she had enrolled in an online course and was also using a Pimsleur language program. The course, program, and other materials provided ample structure, format, and an extensive list of topics to consider so that we could focus almost entirely on speaking to each other. Though I did review and present some concepts explicitly through direct instruction, our time was and is primarily spent together continuing the on-going conversation that is part of our shared narrative.
By the time she left for a two-week trip for Peru she was more than prepared to meet and interact with a host family she had been in contact with. I was very happy to receive email updates about her adventures while traveling and loved that she reported, “Sí, hay muchísimos perros en Perú,” referring back to the novel from our first meeting.
Our friendship has continued to unfold and deepen as we share stories about our work, our lives, families, successes, and difficulties. We have kept things primarily light-hearted but some of the realities we faced were and are quite serious. Family relations, presented in textbooks in a very two-dimensional and flat way, take on an almost unspeakable depth and gravity when the conversation centers on dying parents, aunts, cousins, patients, and one’s dog. Learning and relating about personal and painful parts of our lives has drawn us closer together and provided the context of a growing friendship to our lessons. In one conversation about our families, for instance, Suzanne mastered family members, emotional states, and possessive adjectives.
From lesson to lesson and week to week Suzanne’s progress has been phenomenal. After several preparatory lessons in a classroom space at Speak!, we decided to venture out to a Spanish-speaking restaurant. I spoke with the staff ahead of time and was assured they would not utter a word of English to her. If she spoke English they promised they would not respond and although a number of gringos prattled away in English at neighboring tables, Suzanne and I pretended they were tourists and had as immersive an experience as possible.
As her proficiency and fluency have grown, we now interact almost entirely in Spanish wherever we choose to meet for our classes. People in close proximity to our conversations often lean in to listen and we rarely go anywhere that other people don’t try to add “un poco de español” themselves.
After many months of working together, Suzanne now sends me texts and emails in Spanish and our sessions give me a chance to interact, humorously and seriously, in Spanish with a friend whose kindness, curiosity, and enthusiasm transcend language. On several occasions, mi amiga, Suzanne, has recounted interactions she has had with Spanish speaking patients and I have yet to find words, in English or Spanish that can adequately describe her knowing, gentle smile when she shares how she was able to help a patient or family member. ¡Gracias, Suzanne!
About the Tutor: Carlos Pezua
Born on the Cinco de Mayo and with a Quechua-speaking Peruvian father and a Tennessean teacher mother, Carlos David was destined to be a Spanish teacher! Raised in Germany, Panama, and Korea, his passport is filled with stamps from around the world. He studied at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins before earning a degree from the University of Virginia in government and foreign affairs. He worked briefly for the US Senate in the office of Charles Robb and then escaped to the Coconino Wilderness in northern Arizona for a job with the US Forest Service. Carlos David returned to school to complete the premedical curriculum at UVa while working as a substitute teacher, emergency room tech, volunteering at the Charlottesville Albemarle Rescue Squad and Charlottesville Free Clinic. His classroom experiences and interactions with students inspired him to return to UVa and complete his certification coursework at the Curry School of Education. After a decade of teaching in public and private schools, he is completing a Master of Foreign Language Instruction at Curry. Carlos David’s love of language and culture is highlighted by a passion for fashion. He is the designer and head of WaggiSha- Custom Made Leather Jeans, a business based in Esmont, Virginia and Lima, Peru. Guided by curiosity, intrigued by infinite phenomena of the natural world, and always celebrating culture, he is delighted and thrilled to be part of the Speak! team!