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Monday, April 21, 2008

Chameleons: Not Me, Not Yet

I meet people all the time who could easily pass for British, or German, or Spanish, or French but were born in a country other than the country whose language they now speak perfectly. I really admire these linguistic chameleons. It´s not the people who learned their second, third, or fourth language as a child, but the ones who reached their bilingual status through their own hard work as adults. Unfortunately, because of the cruel nature of the human propensity for learning languages, those of us who began learning a second language later in life are doomed to always carry with us some hint of an accent (or a full-blown whooper of an accent). I don´t mind the fact that I will always speak Spanish with an American lilt to it; I just want to reach the point in which I am completely comfortable in Spanish—reading, speaking, listening, and writing.

I have made the most progress in the reading department. I feel that reading is absolutely essential in developing vocabulary and strengthening grammar understanding. I try to read at least 40 pages of Spanish every day. I am currently reading El Árbol del la Ciencia by Pío Baroja, a Spanish writer who was supposedly a big influence on Ernest Hemingway. Besides all of the new vocabulary that I learn when I read a novel, I also try to concentrate on certain grammar patterns as I read. On some days I will pick out every instance of the use of por and para, two words that mean “for” but with different rules of use, often confusingly so. Other days I will examine every single use of the subjunctive which is used heavily in Romance languages. My French has improved greatly as my Spanish gets better simply because they have similar grammar structures.

I have found that reading books that have been translated into Spanish are often easier for me to read than native Spanish literature. I don´t know why this is but probably has something to do with the fact that translators are not finding new ways to say something in Spanish, but are simply moving an idea from one language to another. Maybe my observation has no linguistic merit, but it just seems that I have an easier time reading translations. Now I feel that my reading comprehension is good enough that I can start tackling some more ambitious works in Spanish literature. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Reading is also a good way to develop a certain degree of cultural literacy in Spanish. Educated people in every language are able to speak in a sort of linguistic shorthand because they have a common cultural background. When someone talks about Hamlet, all natives of the English language who have read Shakespeare are aware of the facts of the case, so to speak. Two important works in Spanish, don Quixote and Tirant lo Blanc (one of the first great works of Spanish literature written in Valenciano), are part of this circle of Spanish cultural literacy that I hope to enter. Don Quixote is difficult to read for native Spanish speakers and I don´t know any Valenciano, so I have picked up both of these works in children´s editions (both in Spanish, not Valenciano). I now can say that I have read both of these great works. I will fail to tell my impressed Spanish friends that the copies that I read of these icons of Spanish literature had lovely cartoon illustrations, but what they don´t know won´t hurt them.

I am nowhere near where I would like to be as far as speaking Spanish. I am becoming increasingly more comfortable. I was in a crowded bar the other night and I met a Spanish guy who spoke perfect English. After I complimented him on this fact I promptly returned to speaking Spanish. I took it as a great compliment the fact that he didn´t find my Spanish too tedious to follow. I just feel stupid speaking English with Spanish folks, no matter how well they have learned my language. I think that I just feel self-conscious about coming across as the dumb, monoglot American. Of course, I may be betraying myself when I choose to speak Spanish, but you have to start somewhere.

The problem with reading and learning all these new words is that you have to start using them or they will never sink in. I was at a party this Saturday when I was desperately reaching for a phrase that I just learned which means “to drink from the bottle.” I knew that it had something to do with some part of the body. I asked around the table and I was inundated with phrases other than the one I was trying to remember. Evidently, the Spanish like to drink directly from the bottle because it seems like everyone in attendance had their own way to say this. I finally pulled out my trusty notebook of vocabulary and found what I was looking for: beber a morro. Morro can mean snout or fried pork rinds. I don´t think that I will forget that expression again. Another tactic of mine that I don´t do nearly enough is to read out loud in Spanish. Whenever I do this I immediately feel more comfortable in my speaking ability.

I feel a particular jealousy for native Romance language speakers as they are able to learn Spanish quite quickly. I think this is especially true for Rumanians, Italians, and people who speak Portuguese. The French seem to have a bit harder time but maybe I am wrong about this. All these folks share a very common set of rules for grammar, gender use, and vocabulary. English is quite a bit different but at least we have it easier than, let´s say, the Chinese or Arabs who must learn everything from scratch, even the alphabet. I can´t complain.

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