Want to learn a second language?
Watch children’s shows.
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a reception where I met one of my teenage idols and mentors. Sonia Manzano — Sesame Street’s “Maria” came to Puerto Rico for a literary event.
Being in my 50’s, I approached her to naïvely thank her for having taught me English through her character in Sesame Street. While she reacted politely, she did not seem pleased.
Puzzled, I turned to my friends. As spectators of the encounter, they concluded that she probably felt uncomfortable because of the erroneous perception that my comment implied that she was older than her actual age.
She had gotten it all wrong. (She looks amazing!)
Growing up in Puerto Rico, I did not have cable tv until I was in seventh grade. Prior to that, all the TV programming that had been available to me was in Spanish. Although I studied English since the first grade (and perhaps before), I could not fluently speak the language.
Fluency in a language comes after thousands of hours of study and practice. Listening to native speakers’ spontaneous conversations is essential to being able to eloquently speak a second language.
Outside the classroom, reading became a most valuable tool for learning English. It supplemented the vocabulary and syntax that school textbooks provided.
Unfortunately, the classroom didn’t teach me how to fluently speak the language.
In my pursuit to become the best I could in English, I discovered that children’s programming was the perfect vehicle to learn conversational skills as well as the language’s idioms. Their characters speak clearly and pronounce words correctly. Seldom will they have a thick, regional accent that makes the dialogue or individual words contained therein hard to understand.
Children’s programming thus provides a practical, unadulterated form of the language useful in learning it. The advent of subtitles must have boosted its potential as an educational aid.
This is why in seventh grade I watched Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and a whole other variety of children’s shows. Not because I was childish, but because I wanted to hone my English skills.
It worked. The strong English conversational skills that I eventually developed were due in part to watching programs meant for a much younger audience.
That is what I wanted Maria to know. How instrumental she had been in the development of my proficiency in English. I did not want to make her feel uncomfortable in the very least.
I wish our encounter had gone better.
I honor Sonia Manzano for being so good at her craft. She superbly accomplished her mission to educate. Even though I was older than the typical Sesame Street fan, I am certain that the countless English lessons that I learned from Maria significantly contributed to the development of bilingual skills that have proved to be priceless.