I consider myself a fluent speaker of Spanish. I can have a conversation with virtually anyone who speaks Spanish, including people with different regional accents. I can understand a wide variety of vocabulary. Also I express myself in Spanish using the correct grammar most of the time (I make errors sometimes). I have correct speech sound production and when I’m focused on my speech sounds, I rarely make errors. But sometimes my Spanish is affected by my English pronunciation. For example, I produce “ch” for the /tr/ blend because that is an acceptable variation in English, but not in Spanish.
Because I learned Spanish after my critical period of language learning, I am not a native speaker. I can continue to get better at my ability to speak Spanish, but part of me thinks that even if I spent the rest of my life in Mexico, I would not be able to achieve native fluency.
The critical language period is from birth to the age of 6 or 7. People must be exposed to language during that time to acquire it. Additionally, if the person moves to a community that speaks a difference language during that time period, he or she can learn the new language as a native. After that point, the human brain is less plastic and is not able to learn a new language without having an accent.
My brain is oriented towards speaking English because, even though my grandmother was fluent in French, I didn’t learn any foreign language until I was in eighth grade. That’s when I took my first Spanish class. From then on, Spanish was a part of my life. I ate it up because I’m a grammar geek (I did turn out to be a speech path after all).
Even though I’m not a native speaker of Spanish, I think it’s helped me grow as a person. Here’s how:
- Comfortable Taking Risks – I used to feel self-conscious about speaking Spanish. I only got better by forcing myself to speak and challenge myself. Being forced to try to say new words and speak to new people has increased my confidence in speaking as well as my confidence in life.
- Being a Better Listener – I work almost exclusively in Spanish so when I work with my students, I do less talking and more listening. I have some articulation only students who only have speech sound errors and are Spanish-dominant. That means that they present with no deficits in their grammar, syntax, and vocabulary in Spanish. I love it when they are saying sentences and are able to expand on a topic (when practicing their sounds of course!) and I learn new vocabulary in Spanish.
- Increased Focus on Child-led and Less Structured – Most speech pathologists adapt their lessons based upon things they hear students say or things they do – it’s only natural given the nature of our students’ special needs. Being that I’m working in my non-native language, I let things happen so that I can observe and analyze more than I would if I was working in English, especially when I’m assessing a student.
- Students Attempt English Earlier – Students who are Spanish-dominant feel more comfortable experimenting with English with me than they do when they are with native Spanish speaking staff (like their classroom teachers). Teachers speak exclusively in Spanish during the first years of school under the transitional bilingual model. My students will try out new words with me. Recently, one student used the word “lame” incorrectly during a session and I ended up defining it for him so he could use it correctly (not to describe my therapy I hope!).
- Learning from My Students – I learn so much about the Spanish language and my students’ unique cultures because of being able to understand Spanish. They teach my colloquial terms as well as new vocabulary. I set up a lesson and then they drive it, which helps them learn and me, too. I don’t like to act like the expert handing something down from on high.
- Understand English Grammar with More Depth – Knowing Spanish at the grammatical level has made me really examine English. Instead of just operating on “auto pilot” with my English, I think about shades of meaning of different vocabulary words or how we use different verb tenses compared to English. Sometimes Spanish has more words to describe one word and sometimes it’s the other way around. For example, there is a “clock” and a “watch,” but in Spanish there is just one word: “reloj.” In English we use the word “hat” for all different types of hats, but in Spanish there is “gorra” and “sombrero.”
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