So last night I got home and noticed there was some commotion going on in the main house, so I went to see what was up. For Día del Niño (Children’s Day, a holiday that doesn’t exist in the U.S., because as my mother always put it, every day is Children’s Day) my host brother gave his nephews a hamster, appropriately named Japter (which sounds like how you pronounce hamster in Chilean Spanish). Ig., who is five, was very excited about Japter and told me all about him, and how he loooooooves to run on his wheel, how he sleeps during the day and is awake at night, how he drinks water, eats hamster food, etc. Then he showed me this huge plastic ball that you can put the hamster in and he’ll roll around the floor in it. Hamster heaven, at least for this little guy.
But anyway, while Ig. was talking about said ball, he said this: “Andó todo el día en la pelota!” (He was going around in the ball all day!) and my host brother and his girlfriend right on key said, “Anduvo!” before I could even realize that Ig. had made a grammatical mistake.
That got me thinking about how children learn their first language. Obviously they have to make mistakes and get corrected. But no one ever told them, “Andar is an irregular verb and is conjugated in the preterite tense like the verb Estar which we learned about last class, remember? Now repeat after me: anduve, anduviste, anduvo, anduvieron, anduvimos. ” Then this got me to thinking about how crappy my language instruction was in high school. Seriously, who learns anything from filling out silly conjugation charts? In high school I was “good” at Spanish and could probably “speak” better than anyone else in the class, but could I really speak? I don’t think so.
Now people tell me I speak Spanish well. Is this because I speak 100% correctly all the time? No, not even close. But I’m fluent, which means I speak quickly and use the correct intonation. My grammar might be awkward (I say things like “me gusta mejor” instead of “prefiero” and am constantly confusing the preterite and imperfect) but people understand me and perceive me as speaking the language well, which in my opinion is the important part. What’s my secret?
Let me tell you, it was not memorizing conjugation charts. I am a good observer and an excellent listener. I spent a lot of time listening when I first arrived in Chile, mostly because I couldn’t speak quickly enough to adequately express my ideas during a conversation. This was frustrating at first, but then I realized that listening and mimicking was so valuable. People tell me I speak like a Chilean. Why? Because I spent months listening to them, and learned the vernacular and intonation that they use.
Although I’m no expert in early childhood language acquisition, I imagine this is how children learn too.