IMAGE: Scene from the opera “The Marriage of Figaro.” Cherubino (partially hiding), Sussana and Count Almaviva. Author of watercolor unknown.
It’s tough to learn a second language when you’re older.
That happened to me when I came from Mexicali and to America. I was only sixteen then, still young, but when it came to picking up a foreign tongue with ease, I was already too old. Except for our sister Amanda, who was seventeen, the younger boys and girls in the family had an easy going learning the new country’s vernacular. They were immediately immersed in the language at school. It didn’t take long for them to become proficient in it. Not so with us two, Amanda and I. We were old goats, I guess.
That learning curve hurdle didn’t stop us, though, and in the spring of 1963, we both signed up for several courses at Imperial Valley College, near El Centro, California. Among them was a Spanish language class. We took it so we could use the lab next to the classroom to learn English. It was a good call. The professor, John Gardner, took us under his wing and guided us through the learning process.
The lab, however, became a refuge and a place of wonderment for me. Besides a set of 78-rpm records and some reel-to-reel tapes to be used in our study, there were some surprising recorded jewels in that room: LPs with music of the fifties and the early sixties, albums of Broadway musicals, and several sets of recordings meant for learning other languages. I have to confess; I spent a lot of time in that place listening to other stuff that had little to do with the English lessons.
Every time I had a long break between classes or during lunch, I would go to the lab and find solace there. Instead of diving into the assignment, I would first listen to music. There were plenty choices, in different genres. One of my favorites was a Nat King Cole LP in Spanish. The album had some great songs, but the best one was “El Bodeguero.” It’s a cha cha chá, great dancing music with memorable lines, especially those stating: “Toma chocolate, paga lo que debes.”
After listening to a few tunes, I would switch my efforts into learning English. I used a Berlitz language course that came in a box with several records and supporting written materials. Listening to the words and phrases was fun, but it often became boring. The course required students to repeat them over and over again until they were forever stuck in the brain. That repetition soon became unbearable, but I usually tried to continue the drill for as long as I could.
After a while, I would go back to the music or to other language courses. I delved into learning a few sentences in German, some French, and a lot of Italian. There’s no doubt, I procrastinated and wasted a lot of time in that lab. Understanding and speaking languages other than English or Spanish was a lot of fun, though. You could very well accuse me of trying to sabotage my lessons and I would agree with you. But the place was just like a candy store to me. It had a lot of stuff that I hadn’t had before. I had to enjoy it.
The Spanish language teacher, by the way, was also a tenor who had often participated in the school’s musicals. He loved to sing and was about to perform in an upcoming opera, Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” He was to play the leading role. One day during class, a student asked him to reprise a rendition of one of the arias. He acceded and sang it for us. He was good and had a powerful voice. I didn’t fully understand then the meaning of all the words sung in Italian by Mr. Gardner, but that cadence and that delivery stayed with me forever.
In the aria, Figaro makes fun of Cherubino, telling him to stop messing around with women and to go to war instead, as he should. Soon after listening to Mr. Gardner’s performance in the classroom, I looked in the lab for a recorded version of the opera. I wanted to listen to it again. I was lucky and found it. It was an album with the entire soundtrack. I listened to it repeatedly, especially to the aria that begins with “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso,” and ends with “Cherubino alla vittoria, alla gloria militar.” It was the aria sung by our teacher in class. I eventually learned all those lyrics. It was easy. All it took was hearing them and repeating them over and over again.
That’s how you learn a new language. With lots of practice and plenty repetition.