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  • Judy Schulten

20. Try my shameful, low-down conversation trick.

If it seems impossible to understand what someone is saying, try my good/bad trick.

In my early days of listening to Spanish speakers, I was so nervous and focused on myself that I understood less than 20%. I was lost and desperate. Finally, I devised a trick to get by: I would mentally label everything either “good” or “bad,” judging as best I could from the general context and the few words I managed to snatch from the flow. When I judged the situation “good,” I put on a pleasant face. When it seemed “bad,” I showed a concerned face.

This quick method was surprisingly effective. I used it for an embarrassingly long time. Making sense of the fast-flowing river of sound is a hard skill to acquire. Those who learn their Spanish informally—in the street, so to speak—are good at it. Those who learn in a class aren’t. It’s always been my weakest skill.

One of the first adult-ed classes I took was at Emory University in Atlanta. The Center For Disease Control (CDC) is near Emory, and it turned out that many of my classmates were researchers from the CDC who’d learned their Spanish following native porters into the jungle in South America. They were fearless about speaking and quick to understand. They made tons of elementary mistakes and laughed a lot. We always went out for beer afterward and continued with our incredibly bad Spanish. It was my first liberating taste of throwing grammar to the winds and communicating any which way I could.

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