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Approaching Fluency

by David Gura
Sep 25, 2007

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David Gura

For most of us who try it, learning another language is a long, frustrating process. In middle school, I made stacks of flash cards to memorize Spanish vocabulary. My friends and I affected accents for class presentations and humiliating skits. And I dutifully conjugated verbs into the present perfect, the future perfect, the past perfect, and the imperfect. By the time I left for college, I was upset that all my hard work hadn't rendered me fluent. A few years later, I spent a semester in Bolivia. (Finally, a chance to put my Spanish to good use!). For weeks, almost every conversation was tedious. What tense is she using? What is the word for that? I must sound really stupid. (In retrospect, I'm sure I did). My host sister, Mariana, would roll her eyes at every malapropism. "That's so gringo," she'd say — in English, to add further insult to injury. I swallowed my pride. I took solace in David Sedaris' stories of ex-pat life. And things got better. Eventually. Today, in the second hour, we'll talk to the editor of a new book, How I Learned English. If English is your second language, how did you learn it? Can you remember that moment when you finally felt fluent?

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