Second generation VSL learning


Liz Lopez with her daughter Alexandra

Every time my daughter complains about having to go to Spanish classes every Saturday morning, I feel her pain, because once upon a time, it was my pain too. But after all this time, I still don’t have a killer argument that will convince a seven year old of the merits of sitting behind a desk when she could be doing a dance class or little athletics, or just veging out at home playing Minecraft.  At her first class this year, she fled the room.

When I was in Grade 3, my parents enrolled me in Spanish at Collingwood College. Every Saturday,  my mother and I would take a train and then a bus from Richmond Station to three hours of grammar drills. At that age, like many migrant kids, I didn’t want to be different. I must have been pretty intransigent, because after a couple of years, she let me give it away. Everything changed when I finished grade six and I went with her to Spain for a two- month holiday. I loved it. I made friends, I met my cousins, it felt like home, and suddenly, it made sense to learn Spanish. It meant giving some space to a fundamental part of who I was. In year 9, I asked if I could go back, and so I returned to VSL, this time to University High in Parkville.

It really does take a village. Teachers add a rigour, breadth and continuity that builds on the basics of speaking and listening learned in the family home. Growing up in an impoverished, war-torn Spain, it was a miracle my parents could read or write.  My mother had no formal education, while my father had about four years of poor schooling from a teacher who, with his cane, lived and breathed the motto, “Con la sangre la letra entra” (with blood, the letters sink in).

It’s taken for granted these days that parents can and should read to their children, but even now many parents cannot do this or don’t know where to start. And so my first exposure to literature in Spanish was through VSL: the short stories of Miguel de Unamuno, Camilo José Cela and Ana María Matute.

I completed VCE Spanish, and while I curse myself for not studying it at university, it stood me in great stead when I went to live and work in Madrid for four years. Those Uni High Saturday classes were also where I met my lifelong friend, Lee Papworth, whose only connection with the language was a grandmother she had never met.She went on to live in Spain, Ecuador and Argentina for more than a decade.

Being from a non-English speaking background (NESB) or LOTE (Languages Other Than English) background doesn’t necessarily mean that the original home language is your first language. By the time I was born, nine years after my elder sisters, there was a lot of English being spoken in the house, so maybe my first language is Spanglish – or, should I say, Espanglish. When my sisters are tired, they default to a few words in Spanish, whereas I default to English and my Spanish unravels.

Yet I am much more fluent than they are, not just because of my time living in Madrid, but because VSL gave me a solid foundation in grammar and usage, and widened my vocab and exposure to writing in Spanish. 

Language teaching has come along way since I started. Grammar is important, but to my relief, my daughter is being exposed to classics of children’s literature, such as Ratoncito Perez, the Spanish tooth fairy, and even scored, along with her classmates, a set of Monopolio. Alexandra’s teacher at Keysborough, María-Inés Avila, who is also a practising artist, teaches with – literally – colour and joy.

And as for the disappearing pupil act, well, we now have an end of semester incentive plan that involves some pricey coloured bricks.

Liz is a VSL parent and administrator of this blog. Follow her on twitter _LizLopez

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