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Speaking across the table

MAR'IA has not missed a lesson or been late since we established our routine. On the day of the first planned lesson, she couldn't find the church, and in the first week or two, other problems intruded. Since then, she has been more than ready. She learned my habit of always being early and now arrives early, too, breezing up on her bike, slightly out of breath. One day she proudly showed me her ``new car'' -- a shiny, multispeed bicycle on which she had not yet found exactly the right place to carry her Skill Book 1.

We begin immediately, seated facing each other across a table. Although my Laubach trainer advised sitting side by side, we started sitting across because at first there were three, then four of us.

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A second Spanish-speaking woman, a beginner in English like Mar'ia, started at the same time, and after a few lessons attempted to communicate a problem that was obviously of great importance to her. I could not apprehend it until a more advanced student stopped by to explain that the second student wanted to bring her mother. She did, and I taught all three students for a few weeks; but the added two have left us, the younger for fulltime schooling, and her mother for the job that supports the daughter's schooling.

By the time they left, we were used to sitting across, and we both like it. Mar'ia no longer hesitates to watch my mouth and thus is usually watching intently when my efforts to speak perfect English (both orally and visually) occasionally fail, my tongue gets twisted, then gives up entirely. We both laugh and try again.

Our lesson begins with review. Mar'ia picks up fast; so fast, in fact, that I realize she has been talking at home with a relative who is more advanced in English. Well and good. A person who has learned English from the same foreign language base can certainly help when he puts language learning ahead of the need to socialize.

Mar'ia isn't the only learner, of course. I am learning about the Laubach curriculum, and my respect for it increases continually. Take the snake, for instance, that was introduced in Lesson 3. At the time I wondered, ``Why drag that in here?'' Now I see the wisdom of the move. It combines a difficult pronunciation with an image so vivid that there is a built-in motivation to get it right.

We are now doing question drills, and I ask Mar'ia, ``Do you have a dog? . . . Do you have a cat? . . . Do you have a snake?'' The first time she responded, ``Yes, I do,'' to all three, putting her hand on her neck when I asked about the snake. Now she can hear the differences better. She listens alertly for the snake, draws back in horror, and says, ``No, I do not!'' And if I ask, ``Do you have a neck?'' she giggles, puts her hand on her neck, and says, ``Yes, I have a neck. No snake!''

Like the snake, all sorts of problems, puzzles, and questions arise that need to be made sense of. If I could act and draw more ably, I might not have had to resort to the Spanish-English dictionary to describe a ``hot dog.'' I was able, however, to draw a sufficiently good rat'on to illustrate the difference between mouse and mouth, which sound alike to the uninitiated speaker of Spanish.

It is hard work, this sitting for two hours at a time, trying intently for authentic pronunciation, proper spelling, passable writing, thorough comprehension. Why two hours without a break? Because Mar'ia doesn't want to get a drink or walk around. She comes to learn English and wants to put every moment to use in that direction. And I am willing to work hard, too, for I like the feeling of you-are-learning-fast, we-have-lots-of-exciting-things-to-explore, and isn't-this-fun!