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The Living Drama of Language

ONCE a week I get to step into the limelight. For two hours each Monday evening, from 7 until 9, I become the focus of an audience of 15 or so adults. A large city high school is my theater, and a classroom is my stage. I teach Spanish to Americans, and the performance is both challenging and fun.

I spend the week between each class preparing the evening's material and gathering my props. A few weeks ago we were learning the names of household items, so I carried in a bagful of my children's doll-house furniture. I handed these out piece by piece to my students, and then began to give them their cues in Spanish. ``Carlos,'' I said as he held up a miniature sofa, ``Ask Amelia what this is.'' And Amelia answered, also in Spanish and almost amazed that she could do so, ``It is a sofa from the living room.'' (``Es un sofa de la sala!'') This was just our second week, and we had eight more weeks in the development of our drama.

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In this classroom, the challenge for me lies in conveying the satisfaction of speaking in a language that is both powerfully emotive and rhythmically sublime. Simply conjugating present tense verbs or reading dialogues, I find, is a pleasure.

But I don't let this experience be limited to just me.

Within 10 minutes of the first class, I start everybody speaking and insist that each student enter into the living drama of the language. As a student of John Rassias, a well-known Dartmouth College language professor, I was taught an intensive language method, in which the language classroom is not merely pedantic, but interactive and intensely personal. Language is not to be a textbook artifact, but an immediate experience.

With the Rassias method, the language teacher engages the class almost constantly in a rapid-fire exchange that forces students to begin to think in the new language instead of translating into the native language first. Grammar, dialogues, and new vocabulary are ``drilled'' into students, with the teacher providing the changing cues.

Although I may not rip the buttons off my shirt, as Professor Rassias has been known to do when demonstrating a verb of anger, I find myself leading a treasure hunt to teach prepositions (``Mire debajo de la silla de Maria'' - ``Look under Maria's chair'') or maybe driving an ``autobus.'' Or maybe we will drink Cuban coffee as we practice the right response to cafe repartee. And always, I am moving, like a pasodoble dancer, back and forth amid the desks to get up close to everyone.

I use the distinctive Rassias finger-pointing drill method for about half of my Spanish classes, and incorporate it with English explanations, cultural information, games, and small scenes to act out.

I always start out my Spanish classes with a short but pithy prologue, conscious now of my pedagogical responsibilities. My adult students these past two years have been, for the most part, planning exciting trips to Spain and Mexico or to one of the other 18 Spanish-speaking countries. They come eagerly to the first class, assuming that they will sit back and listen to a teacher. They also assume that their need for Spanish is only temporary and of the purely touristic type.

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In my opening remarks, I give them my most impressive facts: That Los Angeles is the second largest Spanish-speaking city in the world (which elicits mild surprise); that there are presently 25 million Hispanics in the United States (the blunt numbers begin to raise some eyebrows); and that by the middle of the next century, almost half of the US population will be Spanish speaking (it is this figure that causes the students to sit up straight in their small wooden desks and start to gape).

What I want, of course, is to impress upon my students the daily relevance that Spanish will have in their lives. And how the bridge between peoples will begin with simple speech and grow to mutual understanding.

These realities create a sense of immediacy.

No one is allowed to be uninvolved in my Spanish class, nor does shyness have a chance. If I am the lead performer, my students are my backups.

In a simplistic dialogue using subjects, verbs, and eventually adjectives, we converse. And because I tell my students that the learning of a new language as an adult is a kind of regression to childlike simplicity, we laugh a lot as we struggle through the rudiments of asking each other, ``How are you?'' (``Como esta?'') or ``What time do you eat in the morning? (``A que hora comes en la manana?'').

I begin to notice observers from other, more sedate classes down the hall standing at our doorway. I realize that other classroom doors begin to close as our loud noises and sometimes hysterical laughter escape. My students, often tired from a day's activity, usually drag themselves into the classroom, probably wondering why they are not home reclining.

And then, without warning, they are given new Latin identities. They mingle at a imaginary Spanish airport or are blindfolded and directed by their classmates, all in Spanish (``dos pasos a la derecha'' - ``two steps to the right'') through a classroom maze of desks. They might even figure out math problems in Spanish.

Week by week, the stories start to emerge. Spanish, my students find with surprise, has begun to affect their lives.

Amelia tells us of the patient in her hospital who spoke no English and found her helpful. Elodia has some Salvadoran children in her day-care center whose parents speak no English, and, in addition, her son is engaged to a young Peruvian woman. Elodia makes real contact with all these people.

Carlos, a building contractor in Washington, D.C., works alongside Mexicans on a job and can give some direction. Jose sees a sign at his local gas station advertising ``Latino Landscaping'' and decides to call. Marcos and Mario have business contacts in South America, and now they feel they can start to make a deeper connection. Teresa tells of watching the movie ``Lonesome Dove'' and understanding a Spanish phrase.

Within the classroom itself, I start to see the barriers break down. My students soon leave behind their diverse professional and social roles and become Barbara Ana and Marialinda and Carlos to each other. Struggling to express where they are from in Spanish (``Soy de Nueva York'') or what the weather's like, they find camaraderie.

SOON, two students who seem to be opposites are teasing each other in Spanish. Carlos, in his 40s, is a stout nonconformist who wears a black leather jacket, blue jeans, and T-shirts with punchlines. He always sits up front, ready to attempt any dramatic scene. Winston, in his 60s, is aristocratic and immaculately attired. Reserved in demeanor, he prefers the farthest seat in the back, behind his wife, where he can pretend to just observe, always acting surprised when I call upon him regularly.

Carlos's idea of a great vacation is motorcycling with his girlfriend (also his seatmate) from Maryland to Mexico, finding the cheapest lodging all the way. Winston will insist upon a multistarred hotel on his upcoming trip to Spain, with hot water that runs regularly from his own bathroom tap.

That these two opposites have found friendship across the room in Spanish class is part of the weekly promise that makes my teaching full of unexpected developments. When Carlos gave Winston his favorite pocket-sized book, ``Wicked Spanish,'' for use in Spain, it had the class in gales. I realized that our speaking Spanish has broken through class barriers, too.

Trips abroad are still the focus as we learn how to give a tip in Spanish or choose a hotel room, but perhaps more importantly, my students have found the Spanish presence that is really all around them once they can decipher the alien sounds. In the course catalog, this class is listed as ``Conversational Spanish 101,'' and to converse, I tell my student-actors, only takes two people. It takes student and teacher or student and student, Spanish-speaker and English-speaker. To communicate is the point; all that follows is, like an encore, pure enjoyment.

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