How University of Texas President taught himself to read/write the Spanish language

Ten years after Peter Flawn, now president of the University of Texas, began teaching himself Spanish, he lectured at the Institute of Geology in Mexico City.

"I was not fluent enough to pass for a native Mexican," he says, "but I could fool the Mexican students into thinking I was from some other Spanish-speaking country."

Dr. Flawn, geologist, who ascended to the presidency of the University of Texas-Austin last September, began the self-tutoring that led to Spanish fluency in 1953, after he made his first trip to Mexico as a geological consultant.

"In the large cities in Mexico, an English speaker can communicate easily because many Mexicans are bilingual, but in the oil fields, in the interior, a working knowledge of Spanish is necessary," says Dr. Flawn.

Dr. Flawn was not a stranger to language. He had formally studied French and German, and had a reading knowledge of Russian. At that time a professor of geology at the University of Texas, Dr. Flawn sat in on beginning Spanish classes to learn the structure of the language.

First, he had brought records for self- teaching of Spanish, but found the language used in them more stilted and formal than he needed.

"I wanted to be able to speak the current language," he says. "Remember, my aim was to be able to talk geology with oil field workers and with oil operators."

Dr. Flawn then bought a shortwave radio and began listening to the programs emanating from Mexico. "The commercials were especially helpful," he says. "Commercials are well articulated. The same words are repeated over and over. Each time I heard a commercial, my vocabulary grew."

He checked out Mexican novels from the university library and read them for diversion -- at the same time expanding his knowledge of Spanish. He particularly enjoyed the novels of Jose Romero.

Then Dr. Flawn began the custom of having lunch twice a week with various students from Mexico.

"I would buy the lunch," he says, "in exchange for Spanish conversation. We didn't just talk about this and that; I set a theme for each conversation.

"One time the subject was animals; another time, birds; still another, social customs; other times, politics. Before the luncheon, I would put together a 25- or 30-word vocabulary on the subject at hand, and make a point to use the words in the conversation."

An adult cannot learn language as a child learns it," he explains, "An adult wants to speak and think and use the vocabulary of an adult."

Although Dr. Flawn says many people would not have the motivation he had to learn a language as he learned Spanish, he believes the route he took has been rewarding.

He summarized what a person must do to learn a new language:

* Want to speak the language (motivation).

* Submit to intellectual discipline to do ordinary things like build a vocabulary (patience).

* Develop a strong interest in the cultures and the peoples who use the language (feedback).

* Be willing to try to speak the language, even though one is just beginning (boldness).

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