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Spanish Students Become Amigos : Conversational language class is both a learning experience and a social club for participants.


It is only 9:20 Friday morning, but the energy level of the 13 women and eight men seated at a horseshoe group of tables in Ventura's Santa Clara Street Senior Recreation Center is rising. The group is practicing conversational Spanish.

"Don Gregorio," asks a woman in halting Spanish, "do you know a good barber?"

"No," responds the balding man good-naturedly, "I don't need to visit a barber because I don't have any money or any hair."

Over the din of laughter, one student addresses another. The classmate, a woman in her 70s, is so eager to communicate that she completes a sentence in English.

"Todo en espanol, " chides their instructor, Branka Caran. "Even if you complain, do it in Spanish."

Caran, 63, has been teaching in the Ventura Unified School District adult education program for 18 years.

For some of the students, she said after the class, the course has become a way of life.

Or, as one student announced in Spanish, "our Spanish class is our social club."

With the exception of one student, the class of language "aficionados" is made up of senior citizens who gleefully attend Caran's intermediate-advanced conversational Spanish course Friday mornings from 9 until noon. And regardless of their motive or background, they all agreed that Caran is responsible for the energy and camaraderie of the class.

"I have been teaching adult ed since 1976," Caran said in her Slavic accent. "In our classes it takes about two years of beginning and intermediate Spanish to cover all the verb tenses and elements of grammar. I don't put pressure on anyone. But I am serious about asking them to do their homework exercises. But they learn from each other too, as they converse."

After 25 years of teaching she knows how to pace and vary the activities. The first 30 to 40 minutes are devoted to random questions posed by classmates to each other on topics ranging from current events to geography and literature.

"The beauty of a language is seen in the literature and poetry of a people," said Caran in Spanish. "We have plays they memorize and perform at Christmastime and at the end of the year. They bring baskets, serapes, sombreros and really ham it up," she said with a laugh. "We also have a pinata so they can become familiar with Mexican customs."

Only one of her students is of Latino heritage, she said. "All the rest are Anglo. Many of them had some Spanish in high school. And a few had Latin. The older students are well motivated to learn and they are very successful. Many of these people have been coming to the class six, seven, eight years and they know each other very well," she said.

"And I have a student, Walter Voris, who came to my beginning class on Saturdays a few years ago," said Caran. "And now he is teaching Spanish to volunteers who work with abused children."

Caran herself is not Latina. She was born in Zagreb and grew up speaking Croatian. She arrived in the United States at age 25. While at UCLA she majored in German and Spanish and minored in Russian. Caran taught all three languages at the high school level in Los Angeles before moving to Ventura 19 years ago.

Her enthusiasm for customs and culture has been communicated to the students.

(Polka) Bill Gatsios, a 63-year-old semi-retired plumber, joined Caran's class five years ago so he could understand the Spanish songs people requested he play on the accordion at parties and weddings. "Now I know over 60 songs in Spanish and I teach them to the class," he said.

"Everyone has a very good sense of humor. And to joke around in another language is quite an accomplishment," said Robert Hanawalt, 40.

All joking aside, septuagenarian Harriet Saxe, a four-year veteran of the class, said "taking a course in Spanish by chance can change your life."

Saxe was exposed to the language first in New York. After retirement she spent 1980-81 as a bilingual VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) worker in Ventura before relocating here in 1989. Widowed almost 15 years ago, Saxe has also attended intensive language schools in Mexico.

"I've wanted to take Spanish for 50 years," said German-born surgeon Bernhard Penner, 66. "It's a fun class I really enjoy. And it's my understanding that the same class has been going for many years with many of the same people. They go through the book and then start from scratch again."

Caran modestly attributes the longevity of the group to her students.

"I just teach and guide the students," she said. "They do the work themselves."


People over age 55 can take Spanish through the Ventura Unified School District Adult Education program free of charge, and pay only $10 to $26 for books used in the course spanning September through June. It is also possible to receive high school credit for the class.

Beginning through advanced conversational Spanish classes are offered at sites throughout Ventura. Registration for fall classes will begin in August. For details call 641-5200.

For similar courses in your area, call your local adult education program. Many senior centers also offer similar conversational language courses.

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