Looking Back On Literacy: A Turning Point by Beth Bogage
So there I sat, a high school senior in level IV Spanish class, preparing myself to read a poem by Pablo Neruda in Spanish. By my side, and within reach (always within reach), lay my trusted English-Spanish dictionary, upon which I relied continuously, as though that dictionary were the key to unlocking the mysteries of the language I had been trying to learn throughout my high school career. My Spanish teacher had raved about the poet Neruda on several occasions and I was anxious to connect with the piece of text that lay before me. I surveyed the first line of the poem, and quickly began to look up every unfamiliar word for its English equivalent; I was committed to eliminating all lexical uncertainty before moving on to the next line. And then the inevitable occurred; as I looked back on the first row of text that I had tried so diligently to translate, I realized that the meaning I had extracted made little sense collectively. That is, the meaning was not and could not be the sum of those individually deciphered words. As I continued through the passage, my frustration intensified. For after trying to â€œdecodeâ€ each subsequent line of poetry, the end result seemed the same; I had translated more and more Spanish words, yet the overall meaning of those words as a passage was out of reach.
I underwent a similar experience in my Spanish class that year with regard to my attempts at writing. This was writing beyond the sentential levelâ€”beyond grammar and vocabulary assignments. As students of Spanish IV, we were to write for the purpose of expression. I had established a good foundation for Spanish grammar (I could certainly conjugate well!) and had spent countless hours memorizing vocabulary, and I felt initially that I could easily bring these elements together to produce a good piece of writing. When I received my cor- rected paper the following day, I was stunned to find my carefully printed words drowning in a sea of red ink. Evidently, what I had intended to convey, the thoughts that I tried to express, did not travel well from my mind–in English, to that piece of paper–in Spanish. And from that point on, I saw the very long road that lay ahead of me.
These two experiences served as a literary turning point for me. As a high school senior then, I felt far removed from any sense of struggle I must have felt when I first learned how to read and write my native language as a child. It was difficult for me to have a true appre- ciation for the complexity involved in the process of reading and writing because literacy felt like an implicit ability. Everything changed when I began to study Spanish. Although I couldnâ€™t articulate it then, I began to comprehend the depths of literacy, and of language itself. My struggle with reading Spanish texts (which would continue on through college)Â made me realize that â€˜true readingâ€™ is more than simply understanding words; infinite les- sons in grammar and vocabulary and innumerable consultations with my dictionary were not enough to make me literate in Spanish. Similarly, simply applying Spanish lexicon to Eng- lish syntax would not be sufficient to make me a â€˜true writerâ€™ of the language. I would need to develop many different levels of literacy in order to comprehend or write text in Spanish beyond meaning that was purely referential. Though this was a frustrating time for me, it made me immensely respectful of the many individuals I would meet in my life who have accomplished the incredible task of second language literacy. And I think the awareness that I have acquired with regard to the second language literary task has made me a better teacher to the ESL students I long to assist.